Opinion

Never forget that virtual reality is an age-old art form

If you had to pick a dominant theme at this year's Mobile World Congress, the buzz created by the seductive newness of virtual reality (VR) technology places it high on the list. But VR isn't new. It's been around for centuries, argue Gavin and Jason Fox, creative directors at Framestore.

Virtual reality: think beyond the gadgets to the actual experience
Virtual reality: think beyond the gadgets to the actual experience

This, of course, depends on your definition of VR. If you think VR means strapping a screen to your face, then – yes, VR is a shiny, new, tech-led entity. But virtual reality is more accurately defined as tricking human brain inputs into thinking the user’s in a different environment.

At its core, VR is simply an experience – any type of experience – that allows people to be believably immersed in another world. When thought of this way, a head-mounted display is just one high-tech attempt to achieve VR. And yet there are many other methods the growing VR industry can learn from.

Learn from other immersive experiences

Rather than approaching VR as a purely technology led concept, we should instead draw influences from long established immersive arenas like theme parks, theatres and even radio shows. After all, what was 1938’s War of the Worlds – a panic-inducing radio drama so convincing that people allegedly committed suicide – if not an amazing virtual reality?

The irony here is that War of the Worlds was so = believable precisely because it did not entail wearing bulky headgear to deliver the message.

Wearing a headset makes you conscious of the fact that what you’re experiencing is artificial. But by augmenting an everyday input (in this case a radio broadcast), the illusion of reality is immeasurably much more believable.

So you could argue that if War of the Worlds was delivered over Oculus, HTC Vive or Samsung Gear VR, people might well be wowed; but so thoroughly convinced of impending doom that they commit suicide? Doubtful. We would still be in-line to try it out though…

War of the Worlds is a beautiful illustration of how headsets aren’t the only way to trick the human brain. And yet we’re hooked on VR and the head-mounted display being one and the same. The problem with perceiving VR as solely belonging to a headset is that the content and execution become too intertwined with the technology that serves it.

It goes without saying that the delivery mechanism is an important consideration. But it shouldn’t dictate the overall experience. Instead, the starting point should come from creating an experience that conjures up a wholly believable world of cunningly and invisibly staged interactions.

To this end, we owe more of a VR debt to promenade theatre – where a story is told in a physical space rather than a screen; and the viewer is free to wander at will (albeit in a way that’s been carefully masterminded behind-the-scenes) – than to the Hollywood blockbuster.

Films are a commonly used reference point when marketers come to us wanting a VR experience. But it’s short-sighted. With films, the director has near total control over the viewer’s gaze and can edit a story to play out exactly as they intend. Not so with VR, a medium where the user is free to look around and generate their own unique interactions.  

So the film analogy is not always helpful when trying to tell an immersive VR story. Whether it’s promenade theatre, intense radio drama or the exhilaration that comes from a trip to Disneyland, it’s the screen-free and headset-free experiences that we should try mimic.

This does not, by any stretch, mean that our contemporary notion of VR is redundant. Far from it. It’s simply that the VR sweet spot comes into being when both interpretations of VR, old and new, are brought together.