Why does virtual reality matter? Presence!

[This piece from Recode is an excellent, brief summary of the challenges, rewards and current status of the evolution of virtual reality, and particularly the central role of presence, short for telepresence and otherwise, in the success of the medium. –Matthew]

Boy using Samgsung Gear at VidCon2016

[Image: Experiencing Samsung Gear VR at the Samsung Creator’s Lounge At VidCon 2016. Jonathan Leibson / Getty]

Why virtual reality matters

As a new medium, VR is in a peculiar predicament: Hailed as a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s also still in its creative infancy.

by Jason Brush Jun 28, 2016

Once upon a time, every medium in our incomprehensibly vast modern media landscape — photography, recorded music and radio, cinema, TV, video games, the Wii — was once just somebody’s impossible dream, a laughable absurdity. Movies, at their inception, were hand-cranked carnival attractions, TV an expensive, blurry, furniture-sized indulgence.

Every medium that permeates our lives was once attacked as being, at best, impracticable or, at worst, immoral. Each succeeded solely because of dedicated advocates and acolytes who fought to prove the merit of what others said was folly. They saw past technical challenges, low fidelity and — perhaps most crucially — beyond the status quo’s preconceptions of what was possible in order to investigate the potential of something unproven.

As a new medium, virtual reality is in a peculiar predicament: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Sony and others are making significant, high-profile investments in VR, with VR on center stage at their industry events and featured prominently in their company roadmaps; it’s regularly hailed as a new multibillion-dollar industry.

But at the same time, VR is in its creative infancy. There’s some remarkable content — just look at the amazing VR showcased at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals — but VR content creators are really just in the early stages of understanding how the medium works. Not only is there no “blockbuster” VR piece yet, if you make an investment in a headset today, you’d be able to watch the majority of the best work in a weekend.

Because of this, VR faces many critics who decry it as a bubble waiting to burst. So, what makes VR a medium with potential? Why should consumers, brands, content producers and artists take a chance on its future?

Every popular medium was built upon its early advocates’ fervent belief in its unique potential. The early advocates of cinema saw its potential to bend time and transform space magically; the pioneers of recorded music saw the potential to immortalize sound, which was previously just ephemera. The early advocates of the web saw the potential to connect people to information and make it universally accessible. These are the reasons why those mediums mattered.

So, why does VR matter? Why is it so revolutionary?

The most common answer is presence: VR has the promise of making you feel present in another place, another time, or to have a perspective that you couldn’t have otherwise. This is perhaps why so many of the best VR experiences thus far have been documentary in nature, and why companies interested in telepresence, like Facebook, have invested in it so heavily. If presence is the defining attribute of VR as a medium, then the key to shaping meaningful, impactful VR experiences will be found in shaping presence.

Manipulating presence is a wholly new creative challenge. There’s no prior art or technology that is quite analogous. When making VR, we can certainly build upon knowledge of how cinema successfully manipulates time, architecture manipulates space, theater manipulates performance and so on. But the language of shaping presence, and its attendant creative potential, is a new frontier.

Consider what it means to “be present” in our lived existence: It means to be focused, thoughtful, empathetic and aware of one’s self and surroundings. If this type of experience is VR’s defining attribute, think of it in contrast to every other medium: None demands so much of its audience. There’s no channel-surfing in VR. Falling asleep in it is hard to imagine. In contrast to the way in which we flit through social posts, websites and apps in our always-on mobile existence — often twitchy and unfocused — to use VR is to engage mindfully in an experience. The result is that VR experiences, even unsuccessful ones, are almost never unmemorable. VR has the potential to become our most mindful medium, an antidote to the continuous, noisy invasion of our lives that so much digital media, at its worst, can be.

There are massive, thrilling creative challenges ahead to discover and realize the full creative potential of VR. What does it mean to have the viewer operate the camera? How do the familiar building blocks of cinematic visual language — the close-up, the cut, the traveling shot — translate into this new environment? How can performances be blocked and staged for best effect? How can interactivity be meaningfully added in a way that audiences can readily understand and use? How does storytelling work in a medium where the audience has agency?

Likewise, there are significant practical concerns. Google, Facebook, Samsung and others are investing heavily in building development tools, distribution platforms and the overall technology infrastructure of VR — but navigating this evolving environment requires content creators to thoughtfully consider not just what goes on inside their VR experiences, but how people discover and access those experiences.

Whether it’s worth it depends on your faith in technology to be a positive force in our lives. VR — like the web, TV, cinema, radio and recorded music before it — is simply another technology, with no greater or lesser inherent virtue or vice. What VR can accomplish, like all mediums before it, will be based on two things: The curious creativity of the people making work for it and their optimistic passion for exploring what it can do that has never been done before.

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