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“99.9 percent of things in VR have yet to be discovered.”
That’s what Clay Bavor, Vice President, Virtual Reality, at Google, said to Recode Senior Editor, Ina Friend, during the Code Mobile event this month at the new Ericsson Experience Center in Silicon Valley. Both Bavor and Max Cohen, the VP of Mobile at Oculus, who also spoke at the event, emphasized this point – that’s it’s still early days for virtual reality, and we can only guess where it will lead.
This leaves open ample space for both utopian and dystopian visions, as my colleague Michael Björn explored in a post asking whether humans can live in virtual reality. Are we going to lose ourselves in an exponentially more engaging version of our addictive smartphones? Or is virtual reality the “empathy” machine that will let us walk a mile in anybody’s shoes and break us out of our filter bubbles, both real and digital?
It seems clear that we can’t know the answers to those questions yet. But what was compelling about both Bavor and Cohen’s conversations was the way that virtual reality can intersect and complement, well, reality.
Virtual reality for shopping and the everyday
Both Bavor and Cohen emphasized the importance of video for VR on mobile. It won’t necessarily be about entering a different world but focusing on that blend of the real and virtual. They both talked at length about how virtual reality will change education, with Cohen predicting that high school students won’t even have textbooks in ten years but instead will experience history directly in VR. Bavor and Fried discussed virtual field trips and which sports work best as a VR experience and what might improve the experience of others (their conclusion: basketball and hockey are great, football and American football not so much).
Research from Ericsson ConsumerLab has shown that people don’t necessarily jump to science fiction – or even sitting courtside at a big basketball game – when they think of VR. Instead, they think of things like shopping.
From a Networked Society post by Rebecka Cedering Ångström:
“But consumers are interested in doing even more mundane things in virtual as well, like having a work-related meeting or shopping. And it is about here I think it starts to become interesting. Because when we start to do mundane things in virtual, what really happens is that the border between virtual and real starts to blur.”
And what about the workplace? Check out our cool demo:
Creating an open ecosystem for virtual reality
So VR is off to a good start. It might just be the next big thing. But how do we create a truly mass market? Well, as in most digital success stories, it’s about platforms. Both Bavor and Cohen talked about the challenges of creating the right ecosystem to bring users and content creators together simultaneously.
“There is obviously a chicken and egg problem here,” said Bavor, talking about how developers need an audience in order to get paid, while users need good content to keep coming back. “We need to solve both sides.”
In his interview, Cohen said this issue is why Oculus “is a platform company” more than anything, adding that in conjunction with providing developers the right incentives, “we have to do airport activations, mall kiosks, or this product won’t take off. It won’t sell itself yet. It’s something you have to experience.”
Virtual reality on mobile
In the Q&A after his interview, Bavor was asked whether the VR experience on mobile was good enough to draw in users.
“I’ve seen so many people pick up these devices and say “Wow.” he said. “The technology curves have kind of crossed. There is enough mobile GPU horsepower, resolution, sensors good enough for head tracking. Really proud of what we’ve built. We focused very heavily on latency, performance, frame rate, to make sure the experience is comfortable.”
An augmented reality demo on virtual reality?
I have a confession to make. I wasn’t at Code Mobile – I just couldn’t make the two to three hour drive south to Santa Clara last Thursday. Instead, I followed it on multiple Twitter accounts and watched Bavor talk on two separate live streaming feeds (depending on which was working better). Then I caught up with the rest via YouTube later. It felt really complete, and it was an experience that was more or less impossible just a few years ago, before the mass adoption of live streaming.
But what if I had been in the audience via virtual reality? What if I had heard the sounds, sat in a seat, chatted with other virtual participants? What if I had tried out – wait for this – an augmented reality demo while in virtual reality? There would still have been a value to being there live – actually talking to Ina Fried and taking in the buzz of the Ericsson Experience Center. But an “almost live” experience would have expanded the audience globally and given them a much better experience even than Twitter and streaming video.
And this is where I really hope VR can integrate with reality – in shared experiences and bringing us closer in small ways, if it made video calls more immersive, allowed us to go to a concert or go to the theater with family or friends far away. Right now, our smartphones both connect us and cut us off from other people.
I’ll be really happy if VR just pushed us just a bit more towards connection.
Nathan is the editor of Ericsson’s Hyperscale Cloud blog and the Ericsson Cloud social media channels. He was previously the editor of Ericsson Business Review, the Ericsson Technology for Good and Networked Society blogs, and the Ericsson Cities social media accounts, as well as serving as strategic editor for Ericsson white papers. He has a background in journalism, and his work has appeared in Quartz, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
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