We are hearing more and more about virtual reality. Where are we, really?
Virtual reality is a very fashionable topic, which makes it feel like it's everywhere. If you look at the latest expos like the Mobile World Congress or CES, a ton of major players in the field were there.
Today, we are being promised a truly immersive experience, but as Steven Spielberg put it so well: "We’ve never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether a computer screen. […] I believe we need to get rid of the proscenium and put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by three-dimensional experience. That’s the future."
This is because we won't be able to offer a truly immersive experience until we can separate ourselves from the screen and allow the viewer to move within the content freely. One good example of this was a recent BBC production for a documentary created totally in virtual reality as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. This documentary allows the viewer to follow one of the protagonists of the 1916 revolt in Dublin. The great narrative strength of this documentary is that it allows the viewer to travel not just in space, but also in time. That's the big challenge of virtual reality: Teleporting someone into any universe, at any moment in its existence.
Will the technology continue to evolve?
Regardless of how it's used, the experience of virtual reality is ultimately a promise of teleportation. Today, it is somewhat constrained when it comes to so-called "360-degree" content, because the viewer is limited in how they can move and cannot travel wherever they please within the content. Video game developers understood this, and have long offered players the ability move freely within the game, in an increasingly photorealistic universe.
As James Cameron said: "There seems to be a lot of excitement around something that, to me, is a yawn, frankly. The question that always occurred to me is, when is it going to be mature, when is it going to be accepted by the public at large, when are people going to start authoring in VR and what will that be? What will the level of interactivity with the user be other than just ‘I can stand and look around'. If you want to move through a virtual reality it’s called a video game, it’s been around forever."
He's probably right that video game developers will lead the virtual reality market in terms of both business and innovation. Furthermore, there are also new technologies now that are incorporating virtual reality headsets. One example is eyetracking, which takes into account the problem of the "wandering gaze."
There are many players in the virtual reality market. Are they all offering the same thing?
When new opportunities appear, many people seek to corner the market using means that unfortunately do not maximize user experience. We will probably see a panoply of devices, which will not make the matter any simpler for the general public. One example is McDonald's which turned its Happy Meal box into a virtual reality "headset", Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, full headsets like Oculus, HTC Vive, Fove, etc. Some of these devices will not help enhance user experience, and will have an impact on the economic viability of the concept. If we don't do things well, we'll end up repeating the 3D television ordeal: Widespread marketing of the equipment to the general public, but content and user experience that were disappointing.
b<>com has made virtual reality one of its priorities. Can you tell us more about its current projects?
We were just talking about the challenge of allowing unimpeded browsing and interaction in virtual reality content; this is the main direction we're going in at b<>com. Not just for mainstream entertainment, but also for more professional uses that can't be ignored, like training. Surrounded by major technological partners, we are working, for instance, on integrating real elements into virtual reality content using 3D imaging, and on the lag problem. Work is also underway on interaction between user and avatar, as well as on interaction between the users themselves within a piece of virtual reality content. Furthermore, we have developed expertise about acceptability factors and sensory conflicts (nausea, sickness, etc.) and are involved in several standardization activities aimed at bringing together different market players.