Can VR Survive in a Cutthroat Attention Economy?

Can VR Survive in a Cutthroat Attention Economy?

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Last decade, the technology was questionable; this decade, the content. But today the greatest challenge for VR—as both an industry and medium—is no longer the tech or the content but the problem of time and attention…

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Last decade, the technology was questionable; this decade, the content. But today the greatest challenge for VR—as both an industry and medium—is no longer the tech or the content but the problem of time and attention. How, exactly, will or does VR fit into the collective human schedule? When and where will large numbers of people “do” VR, in a time when nearly every second of week is contested territory?

Today, I think only the deeply jaded would deny that VR has the goods, or is at least pretty close. The goggles could get better, but they work. Every year the creators of VR films and games produce a handful of stunning, memorable pieces (even if they haven’t always quite figured out the stubborn tension between narrative and interaction). Sundance is an important annual showcase—last year’s Asteroids, Miyubi and Chocolate were unforgettable—and this year brought new wonders like Spheres and Wolves in the Walls, among others. Sure, there could be more of it, and not all VR content is great, but something as simple as a VR tour of the Obama White House can be a memorable, affecting trip. But when or where will people actually spend the time to see this stuff? That’s the hard question, and one that has really burned VR over the last few years. Media history makes it clear that a commercial medium can only survive if it finds itself a reliable, repeatable place in the national schedule for significant numbers of people. (Those that don’t, like the 90s Web-TV efforts Pseudo.com and MSN 2.0, simply die after burning through lots of money).

Looking back, every successful medium has either “killed” a predecessor (in the manner that television displaced radio in the home, or that streaming video is chipping away at cable) or “colonized” time and attention that was unused or used for something else. However, that was somewhat easier when people actually had free time. Today, we live in a media environment where billions of dollars are spent fighting for the time spent “waiting at the bus stop."

Making matters even more challenging: unlike other newish forms of media, VR demands not just passing attention but the absolutely highest quality of devotion. Other media can target brains that are doing something else as well. That helps explain the success of podcasting, which has plundered the driving hours, or social media, which thrives on what Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed memorably called the “Bored at Work Network". Yet no one waiting for a bus pulls out VR goggles (at least not yet), and you still can’t turn to VR if you get bored at a meeting. Meanwhile, VR units face incredibly tough competition inside what we call our homes but are really more like media studios, festooned as they are with television, videogame consoles, computers, and phones, not to mention old-school interactive units like roommates or family.

All this points to an unexpected near-term future for VR. It wasn’t unreasonable to bet that VR would take over home prime-time hours, but that hasn’t worked out as planned—television and traditional gaming are just too tough as competitors. But the time that is open is the time people spend outside of the home, looking for something to do, alone or with friends. As Pete Billington, director of the critically acclaimed Wolves in the Walls, points out, good VR film experiences really aren’t that dissimilar from live, immersive theatre productions like Sleep No More or, especially, Then She Fell, both of which attract giant lines in New York City.

The solution, then, would be to focus on scaling up immersive theatre to the masses (perhaps focusing on character-driven VR, as Edward Saatchi, a co-founder of Oculus Story Studios, argues). It is the colonization of whatever time people might otherwise spend outside the home, one way or another—at theaters, movies, museums, art galleries, or even just bars—that holds the most promise for VR.

In fact, that’s basically what’s going on in places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and across Asia, where VR palaces and arcades are springing up across town like so many bowling alleys or discos in the 1970s. In New York alone there’s the Cinépolis Chelsea, which charges $10 to watch any of four VR films; an IMAX VR center that offers a mix of multiplayer games and movie-based ancillary experiences at up to $15 a pop; and VR World, which bills itself as the largest VR center in the Western Hemisphere, with $39 buying a customer two hours to try out different experiences. (It sells cocktails and plays dance music.)

VR producers could also take a shot at the time many people think they devote to health, whether mental or physical. If people feel some need to spend time relaxing—and if some forms of VR, with their influence over the emotions, can leave one in a blissful and composed mental state after a mere 12-minute experience—perhaps some VR experiences may earn their way into our schedules that way. This also might help solve the problem of making people come back more than once, with exercise-driven VR starting to compete with, say, yoga.

It all suggests that VR, despite what everyone once thought, needs to succeed outside the home before it can succeed inside. It needs to be of value out there before people are convinced they need it in here. Hence, as unlikely as it may sound, a technology that once seemed destined to produce a new generation of shut-ins might play a part in getting people out of their houses.


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