Getting Queasy About Virtual Reality

If 2015 had a single bright, shiny object in the digital media sphere, it was virtual reality (VR). The arrival of more affordable versions of Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens and the mass availability of Google Cardboard helped proliferate the VR experience and stoke the inevitable speculation that personal, immersive experiences would be both the future of computing and digital content generally. Anyone who has donned VR gear can attest to the sheer coolness of the experience. In theory, VR could allow for wondrous immersive effects in journalism-moving us from reporting events to transporting audiences there.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, The New York Times issued a VR clip of Parisians placing flowers at a makeshift memorial to those who were killed. The impact of that video attests to the subtlety of VR's power to place us in a scene. It comes from the emotional event occurring around you, with unexpected 360-degree sound cues and small insights coming from the viewer, not the reporter.

Some publishers are flocking to VR as a solution to several business problems. They see a new opportunity to attract advertisers with expensive content marketing projects that are more lucrative and consumer-friendly than intrusive digital advertising. At the same time, they see the prospect of crafting unique editorial environments that consumers may eventually pay to experience. In other words, some content providers see "premium" models written all over VR. Except when it isn't.

As we learned from other augmentation technologies that preceded it-QR codes, augmented-reality (AR) overlays, and VR's closest cousin, 3D-publishers are exceptional at poisoning their own well. Each of these is a perfectly useful technology when applied judiciously, with an eye toward adding value. But consumers soon get jaded when they see the technology thrown at substandard experiences.

There are more than a few examples of this, but we can stick with The Times to find them. The newspaper's in-house content studio co-produced sponsored VR content for The Weinstein Co.'s film release, Carol. It included a VR video of familiar celebrities floating over a cityscape and an unconvincing VR rendering of a piece of dialogue from the film. In another VR clip for GE, we are inside an animated nature scene that seems to be an excuse to spin around (because you can) and get a touch of vertigo (which some of us did).

In too many VR projects, one gets the queasy feeling that we are watching a perfectly good technology trivialize itself. Similar to bad 3D, elements of the scenes feel as if they're staged excuses to activate a VR effect. The situation, not the technique, really should justify the use of this technology. 

There are a few VR projects that demonstrate where, when, and how the technology makes sense. The automaker Mini has crafted a short heist drama called Backwater that places you into a complex, tense scene in which various sound cues put you on edge and direct attention around the scene. Outside magazine distributed, on behalf of The North Face, a VR exploration of the peaks of Nepal. The simple raison d'etre was to make the viewer feel that he or she was on a frickin' mountaintop in Nepal.

VR's cheerleaders may like to align the innovation with movie sound and color. It is a poor analogy, mainly because audiences in the 1930s and 1950s respectively needed to do nothing more than sit back and get accustomed to talkies and color. More similar to 3D, QR codes, and AR, VR requires an investment in time, tech, and convenience. And similar to those predecessors, VR risks the same fate as a technology whose experiential payoff is not in line with the consumer's required investment of time, tech, or convenience.

If there is one thing the digital revolution has taught us, it is that easy wins. Smooth and effortless migration to new platforms and gadgetry requires two things: very little consumer effort or discomfort and delivering high returns for little investment. The old adage about each required click halving one's audience applies here. Before consumers don even the simplest headset or handset (and risk motion sickness), publishers will need to do better than they did with 3D, QR, and AR. So far, I am left more queasy than dazzled.    

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