Virtual reality*, or VR, has the potential to break one of the basic tenets of photography: that it’s fundamentally a medium based on looking at an image, rather than being immersed in, or part of, an image. However, despite years of technology development, VR has never quite gained traction beyond tech enthusiasts.
The problem certainly isn’t a lack of innovation or investment. In the consumer market, companies like Samsung, Ricoh, and Nikon have all introduced 360º cameras at reasonable price points, and while they’re fun, none has come up with a product that rocked the world.
At the professional level, companies like Google and Nokia have put a lot of R&D into platforms and products, and while they’ve achieved some level commercial success, VR remains a somewhat niche market. Meanwhile, media organizations such as The New York Times and USA Today have created good content, but the masses aren’t exactly rushing to it.
|In late 2015 and 2016, The New York Times sent Google Cardboard to all their subscribers in preparation for watching VR content.|
At a personal level, I’m excited about VR technology and its potential change the way we experience imaging. I’m even the guy that came back from NAB2016 so enthusiastic about VR that I wrote an article to tell you why it would succeed. While I still think I’m right – at least in the long run – I’ve now had a couple years to analyze the industry, poke and prod dozens of products, and talk with experts ranging from camera designers to Hollywood studio executives. And here’s what I’ve found:
VR isn’t ready to succeed.
Note that I didn’t say it won’t succeed, but that it’s not ready yet. I’m convinced VR will see its day as a transformational technology, but you’re going to have to wait. With that in mind, here are six reasons why VR isn’t ready to succeed, and one reason why it will, in the end.
Six reasons why VR isn’t ready to succeed:
1. The viewing hardware is too cumbersome
I almost don’t need to point this out because it’s the most obvious factor, but the way we currently view VR content sucks. It generally requires large, bulky headgear that straps to your skull like a helmet, as well as whatever headphones you need for sound. In short order, it becomes uncomfortable enough that your desire to remove the hardware exceeds your desire to see whatever is coming out of it. That’s not a recipe for consumer success.
I loosely equate today’s VR headsets to 1981’s Osborne 1 portable computer. Sure, you could take it with you, but portable computers never achieved any type of critical mass until the advent of what we know today as the laptop. Similarly, VR viewing devices won’t see wide adoption until they are small, comfortable, and unobtrusive. They need to get to the point where it’s like putting on a pair of sunglasses.
|The Osborne 1 computer (1981). Image by Wikimedia user Bilby, released under Creative Commons license.|
2. The display technology isn’t good enough
Anyone who has tried a VR headset, even one of the better ones, knows how pixelated the image looks. Unfortunately for VR, high resolution displays that appear as sharp as a printed magazine page have become the norm, and have raised the bar of consumer expectations. Until consumers can look into a VR headset and see an image that achieves this level of clarity, or at least something close to it, it’s a no-go. After all, it’s virtual reality. To be convincing it must look real.
3. It doesn’t ‘just work’
Let’s say you can get past the cumbersome headgear that makes you look like a spaceman from a 1978 home movie, and that you don’t mind a screen that looks like it has a chain-linked fence in front of it. You still have to get it to work. Admittedly, there’s been progress in this area, but using VR often requires some level of technical know-how and a willingness to tinker. We often talk about technology that ‘just works,’ but until it’s simple enough that the least tech savvy among us can set it up, VR will remain in the realm of tech enthusiasts.
4. VR capture technology needs to get better
Assuming you can solve the problems mentioned above, you still need to fill a virtual space with a lot of data for it to be convincing. That means you either need cameras with lots of resolution, or simply a lot of cameras (which is the current approach). To keep costs down, most VR camera setups rely on small sensors, which come with their own set of tradeoffs.
Even with professionally-oriented cameras such as the Nokia OZO, most of the content I’ve seen has mediocre dynamic range with crushed blacks and clipped highlights, as well as occasional stitching errors. Consumers have been trained to expect higher quality, and their tastes reflect that. Sure, you could build a cage to hold ten Arri Alexas, but that’s not an accessible option for most content producers.
|The Nokia OZO is arguably one of the better VR cameras on the market today, and one that has achieved some level of commercial success. However, the imagery it produces is still below the standards consumers have become accustomed to. You can order it online for $40,000.|
5. Nobody has agreed on common conventions for VR content
This one’s a bit more nebulous, but it’s actually pretty important. VR is new enough that conventions for things like how to film a scene, how to tell a story, or the best way to present information are still being invented. That’s a huge opportunity for content creators, but it also creates a disconnect with viewers. Until there’s a consistent expectation for what VR is, and how it’s experienced, it will be challenged to reach a broad consumer audience.
6. You’re stuck in place:
Most VR experiences today simply place you at the center of a spherical space. Although you can choose where to look, that’s generally the limit of your engagement with the scene. It’s certainly possible to create compelling VR content within this constraint, and I’ve seen great examples of VR films that do so, but for the average person who’s going to post a VR video on social media, their friends will get tired of it quickly. The really important leap will come when viewers can move around a scene.
I never thought I’d say this, but Facebook to the rescue! The video below shows off some technology that begins to address this problem. (In fairness, other companies are working on this type of technology as well, but Facebook wins because the video was easy to find…)
The one reason why VR will succeed:
VR content can be very compelling
Despite all these challenges, VR will eventually succeed for the simple reason that VR content can be extremely compelling. Even within the limitations of current technology, I’ve seen VR films, experiences, and news stories that were far more powerful and engaging than they would have been on a flat screen. In my post-NAB2016 article I called out two examples, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness and Witness 360: 7/7, neither of which could have delivered the same impact without an immersive medium.
VR will need to overcome the limitations I’ve outlined above to expand beyond early adopters and enthusiasts, but once it does it has the potential to change the way we interact with digital imagery in very fundamental ways. Imagine being in the middle of a documentary film instead of watching it from across the room. Or, for still photo enthusiasts, imagine visiting someone’s online photo gallery and moving through 360º images with all the resolution and color fidelity one might expect from a Nikon D810. I don’t know how long it will take, but technology has a remarkable way of working these things out given enough time.
I’ll end by posing two questions, and I’m genuinely curious what the DPReview audience thinks about them. 1) Have I missed anything important in my list above?, and 2) Assuming we can get past the technology challenges and VR becomes insanely good, and unobtrusive to use, would you use it? Let me know what you think.
* For the purpose of this article, I’m focused on VR as a technology for digital imaging, and excluding applications like computer gaming (which has a very different target audience and requirements)