From the NAB Convention: Should you bet on virtual reality?


July 2017

Part 1 of a series

I’ve been a bit of a gambler for as long as I can remember, from pitching quarters after football practice as a kid to the poker, craps, and college football action I prefer these days. But one game I stay away is roulette, which is the second-fastest way to go broke in Las Vegas.

NAB ShowThe fastest way? Betting on new technologies at the National Association of Broadcasters convention.

It’s appropriate that NAB is in Las Vegas every year—there are more than 1700 companies exhibiting, and each one will tell you their newest innovation is the number to bet on. But how do you know which one the ball is going to land on?

Well, unlike roulette—where previous spins have no impact on future spins—you can make some pretty good guesses if you know your history. So, here’s my gambler’s take on one of the most talked-about innovations at NAB: virtual reality.

Two reasons to hedge your bets on virtual reality

One of the first venues I walked into at NAB was the Virtual Reality Pavilion. Wow, it was impressive! I spoke with some of the leaders in VR, augmented reality, 360 video storytelling, immersive audio and a whole mashup of ways companies are trying to put those things together into pretty packages fit for retail shelves.

StudioNorth VR Testing

VR can blow your mind. At StudioNorth, we’re already exploring its huge potential with several clients in industries like healthcare and education. (See below for some other exciting VR applications.) But it’s still a young technology in an entirely new medium, and I have serious doubts about it ever being a major consumer technology.

There are two main reasons VR is a risky bet:

  • VR hasn’t learned from the failure of 3D television
  • There’s no compelling VR content for mainstream consumers—yet

A lackluster user experience

Remember all the great promises of 3D television? It’ll be just like you’re at the game or the concert. You won’t have to buy a ticket ever again!

Problem was, nobody wanted to sit up straight in a chair and wear 3D glasses at home. People like to lie down on the couch when they watch TV, but that makes the 3D look like a blurry mess. And the glasses? We were told they would become more comfortable, and less intrusive—or the really patronizing “you’ll get used to them.”

Right now, VR suffers from too many limitations to how you move around, and how you interact with things. Research shows that people don’t want to teleport to get to a new location, they don’t like having to hold remote controls in their hands, and they don’t want to have to wear big, bulky VR goggles. This lackluster user experience is making adoption an uphill battle—as seen in the recent decline in VR component sales.

More than slicing papaya?

To attain widespread consumer adoption, VR innovators will have to improve the user experience, but the bigger battle is going to be content. There are only so many times you can play Fruit Ninja until you begin thinking the only thing you can do in VR is slice and dice papaya.

Right now, aside from some fun but limited games, there are really only two entities dominating the VR content space—brands and … well, let’s just say “short films of a licentious and unchaste nature.”

Mainstream consumers aren’t going to buy millions of VR sets if all they can get is marketing material or erotica. Until content creators start creating compelling stories specifically for VR, we won’t see widespread consumer adoption.

Hints at a strong future for VR

This isn’t to say there is no future in VR. Here are just a few situations where the technology is already somewhat successful:

  • Theme parks and entertainment venues. You know those rollercoaster VR apps you can get from the app store? Well, a few theme parks are racing to install VR into actual indoor rollercoasters. I can’t even imagine the disclaimer to ride that ride.
  • VR for pre-visualizationArchitectural firms use VR for pre-visualization with their clients and contractors on larger projects such as hospitals and hotels.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment for soldiers returning from combat—with positive results, I might add.
  • Trade shows. As mentioned earlier, brands are one of the largest creators of VR content. Walk any large trade show floor, and you’ll find a few exhibitors with VR experiences—and a long line of attendees waiting to try it.

People like VR. They want to try it. What they don’t want is to wait in line to experience poorly produced VR content.

This is where brands and other content creators have to do a better job. Marketers have been so quick to show off their version of the VR experience that they’ve forgotten to make the content compelling or valuable to the end user. And without valuable content, VR runs the risk of becoming a gimmick.

We can solve this problem if we slow this potential gravy train down a bit. Let’s think through what the user really wants out of VR, instead of just showing them the same old stuff packaged into a headset.

In Part 2—another risky technology, and some safer bets

Eric Pound

Eric Pound

Executive Producer

As the Executive Producer for StudioNorth, Eric is responsible for most things that move or make noise (video, audio and live events). Outside of work, Eric spends as much time as he can fishing and hunting, where he tries not to move or make noise.

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