As a Digital Designer, and a self-proclaimed nerd, VR is something that I’m very excited by. It’s not often that something brand new comes along and provides you with a fresh challenge to sink your teeth into, and by the time I started working in the industry, smartphones were already old hat and websites something of an elder statesman. But VR has an image problem, it’s put the cart before the horse and – for all its technological lustre and remarkable first impression – hasn’t yet found its reason to exist. It’s technology without a purpose, a vacuum that needs filling, and it’s starting to be filled by the wrong stuff.
I recently had the opportunity to go to D.E.N Live, an event held by The Telegraph around the future of technology in business. There were a lot of interesting speakers, but many more who took a very interesting subject and made it seem very dull. I heard about a lot of technology and how it applies to ‘streamlining manufacturing processes’ and ‘efficiencies in the workplace’ and a whole bunch of stuff that means very little to a designer. I wanted to see how these new innovations would affect my workflow, and where it would take me. Data Capitalism, other than being a nonsense term, isn’t really going to affect the way I do my job or live my life. And that’s really the point here. Technology can, and most definitely will, be used in many ways to increase profits, drive efficiency and farm data. There’s not anything inherently wrong with that – depending on which side of the ethics fence you sit – but it does very little to stir the soul.
All technologies have their Cultural Revolution, it never takes long after a medium is created for artists to start using it as a medium for expression, and tinkerers to make themselves a toy. Film had Le Voyage dans la Lune, the gramophone had King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, television had The Man With the Flower in His Mouth and computers had – much less glamorously – Pong.
This time, it seems, things are happening in reverse. VR erupted out of the gate with platitudes being thrown around concerning what it means and what it could be. The future of film, the future of gaming, the future of interactive experiences. For gamers it seemed like a great thing, there was a palpable sense of excitement and for good reason. The promise of being fully immersed in a virtual world finally coming to fruition, true escapism, the stuff of sci-fi films come to life. It was niche, it was unknown, but it was pure.
It was niche, it was unknown, but it was pure.
As soon as Facebook threw their hat in the ring, it felt like every other technology giant saw it as legitimised and clambered to find a way to monetise this new technology and apply it to a vast swathe of different ‘experiences’. There are marketing reels in all their glorious banality creeping onto HTC Vive and Oculus Rift that do nothing that a normal, 16:9 video couldn’t do. WorldPay is creating ‘Virtual payment solutions’ which enable you to pick up a virtual item, pay for it with a virtual credit card by holding it over a virtual payment terminal and entering your PIN on a virtual keypad. Why?
The effect this has had on what was once such a simple pitch is that it’s created confusion around what it is. It’s opened the floodgates for everyone to develop their own versions, created an open market for the introduction of alternative technologies. It’s given rise to an umbrella of terms like VR, AR, MR, XR, all competing while simultaneously being conflated with one another. This is all before the technology has even come close to becoming a fully realised product.
That’s not to say there’s not great stuff out there. There are some excellent experiences being constructed right now that show us what the future of VR could be if placed in the right hands. Framestore have created some incredible work that transport a school bus full of children on a road trip around Mars, bring the Natural History Museum to life and take people on a perilous hike up and across mountains in a room-scale VR adventure. Jaunt VR take a cinematic approach allowing you to experience stories from the inside, standing toe-to-toe with the characters, or explore the Amazon rainforest as if you were there. This is what will drive the medium forward, and give it legitimacy in the eyes of the average person, giving them the chance to do things they’ve never done before.
As designers, and more broadly creators, we need to take control of the narrative surrounding emerging technologies, demystify them and present them for what they could be. In the same way that film was harnessed by creators, turned from a tool for documenting into a medium for creation, and catapulted into popular consciousness, creators need to be the driving force behind VR to really allow it to reach its full potential, with experimentation at the heart of it.
A phrase I heard while at D.E.N Live really stuck in my mind: “Design is more important than any of us realise.” It was said with such nonchalance that I’m not sure even the person saying it really believed it. But it’s true, not just design but creativity as a whole is so important to the adoption of anything. Creativity drives culture forward and culture plays a massive part in what people take on or leave behind. Throwing things onto a VR headset and telling people it’s cool or useful isn’t going to make them instantly believe that it is, and it isn’t going to convince people that VR is something that they can’t live without. The more this happens the worse people’s perceptions of VR are going to be. Without people creating truly great experiences that are accessible, understandable and fun it will become at best a theme park attraction and at worst a freak show. That’s an image problem that VR won’t be able to live down.