What we learned at MBI's Virtual Reality Creative Summit

Posted by Charles Lloyd on December 14, 2016

Virtual reality has arrived, and after the year we’ve had in the real world it couldn’t have come at a better time. With ten million Google Cardboard units shipped across the world and Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear and a plethora of other devices now on sale, what was once confined to the pages of 1950s science fiction is now available at Argos. The possibilities are seemingly endless. VR is not limited to 360° video; 360° sound and the developing field of haptic technology which allows users to feel their virtual surroundings means that VR can offer truly unique experiences, from being placed in the front row of a music concert to walking across Machu Picchu in your own home.

As with any new medium, however, there’s as much uncertainty as there is excitement, as media owners, game developers, brands and advertising agencies all ask themselves where they fit into the burgeoning VR puzzle. This week’s news that that some of the world’s leading tech companies; Facebook, Google, HTC, Sony and Samsung have joined forces to create the Global Virtual Reality Association will hopefully see the new organisation sharing research and guidance across the industry. In the meantime, MBI’s first Virtual Reality Creative Summit brought together some of the leading minds in VR to update us on the latest developments in the field and offer tips for best practice. Here are some of the key points from the conference.

It’s an incredibly powerful new medium. Simon Benson of Sony recalled showing Playstation’s VR technology to third party game developers and a common response from them was that they’d been waiting for this moment all their lives. Perhaps the greatest insight into the power of virtual reality and what sets it apart from other media was an anecdote from John Cassy (Factory 42) and Jon Wadelton (The Foundry). Both took part in a VR experiment in which the headset placed you on top of a tall building with a tightrope in front of them; they also had a piece of wire on the ground in front of them in the real world. While one had a fear of heights and the other did not, neither Cassy nor Wadelton could bring themselves to take a step forward despite them both knowing what they were seeing wasn’t real. This ability of VR to fool the subconscious gives the medium a unique ability to offer a truly immersive experience, and that sensory transportation is what needs to be tapped into to make the most engaging VR content.

Google Daydream could be a gamechanger. Another speaker at the event was Greg Ivanov, working in business content and development for Android’s VR venture Daydream at Google. Like Samsung Gear, Daydream works by slotting a smartphone into a headset, but is paired with a controller. What sets it apart is that Google has developed a separate version of its Play Store for VR apps. Along with Google’s own apps, a variety of newsbrands, gaming and video on-demand companies have signed up to offer VR-first apps, such as The Guardian, The BBC, CNN, Netflix and Jaunt. With a £69 price tag a fraction of standalone headsets such as Oculus Rift, and with all new Android phones being built Daydream-ready, Daydream’s release in 2017 may be the biggest milestone yet on the road to mass-adoption.

But mass-adoption is not guaranteed. As Ivanov put it, 2016 was Year Zero for VR, and Micke Hjorth of Starbreeze Studios admitted that VR cannot currently offer ROI because the system is still too small. No burgeoning technology can take its success for granted, and Wadelton warned that ‘without that killer app or killer experience, the whole thing isn’t going to work’, pointing to Halo for Xbox and Avatar for 3D film as examples of those killer experiences that get a device or medium off the ground. Wadelton also predicted that it will take two or three hardware generations before mass-adoption, so while we may well be approaching the dawn of the VR era, we’re not necessarily as close as we might think.

What makes good VR content?

One panel at the summit was dedicated to ‘The Ten Commandments of VR Storytelling’, which provided some valuable tips for making engaging VR experiences. The panel advised content creators to be aware of the many different ‘flavours’ of VR – in other words don’t limit content to just one of them. There’s 360°, interactive 360° and fully interactive, and so to get the most out of the medium content should be created that works across the spectrum. The same is true of devices. There’s no set standard at this moment in time, so knowledge of each device and their capabilities is crucial.

Keep it simple. Each content mechanism needs to be perfect for the user to feel transported, and if anything doesn’t feel right the spell will be broken. It’s therefore better to get one mechanism spot on than to do layers of average ones. It’s also important to remember that VR’s USP is its interactivity; the user must be the director and not a spectator. And lastly, don’t make people throw up! The fluid in our ears senses movement and when our eyes are telling our brains otherwise, as with reading in the car, nausea ensues, so bear that in mind.

By Charlie Lloyd, Senior Content Researcher

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