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Notes from the 2016 Vision Summit

If you’ve been in the gaming community, you might be totally comfortable around people talking about “beefy rigs.” If you’ve read science fiction, you’re likely familiar with the “Metaverse.” If you have been paying attention to the VR community, you may be using terms like “presence” and you might even be familiar with the challenges of “locomotion and teleporting.” But you know you’re among experts in the space when people are comfortably discussing the essential need for better videogrammetry, the challenges of “incomplete focal parallax,” or “the trap of 90Hz update loops.” Such was the crowd at the 2016 Vision Summit, which consisted of about 1,500 practitioners on the front lines of the recent surge of interest and activity in the Virtual and Augmented Reality industries.

A continuum of experiences

AR/VR is an emerging medium without many (or any) common standards. From simple, linear 360-degree immersive audio video experiences to complex physical simulation experiences that require very high-end hardware—there is a continuum of experiences that falls under the umbrella of VR/AR. As a UI/UX designer, I easily gravitate to the content experiences where the participant is more an active participant, rather than a passive observer.  Three experiences that I tried at the conference that stood out for me were Tilt Brush, The Fantastic Contraption, and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. The UX work in them is foundational as it establishes some of the key tenets, rules and ideas that are bound to be imitated and improved upon in subsequent titles. More importantly, however, when you are in these experiences, you want to stay in them, to keep exploring and playing, they feel unique. You quickly become oblivious to how ridiculous you may look from a 3rd person perspective.

The KPI of VR: Content, content, content

The key metrics for success of any new hardware platforms always revolve around the content. Palmer Luckey, the creator of Oculus Rift, discussed the two main questions he’ll have on his mind in 2016: how many dollars will be spent on the consumption of content? And how many hours will consumers spend in the content itself? So the underlying theme of the conference was not how good the hardware is (even if we have a role in designing some of it), but how good the content is in this new medium. The hardware has taken decades to get to where it is, and relatively speaking, it’s moments away from its commercial release. Whilst VR been around as real technology for more than 30 years, up until two or three years ago, it has been too expensive to be commercially interesting outside of the domain of a few academic research groups and niche vertical markets. With the cost of the technology going down, we are seeing the number of VR practitioners – from engineers to designers, directors to scientists – skyrocket. As a result, we have seen more VR content in the last two years than in the last 30 combined. With the content ecosystem and the monetization strategies around it also emerging, this VR renaissance will only accelerate.

The economic reality of VR

Despite the tremendous progress in the last three years, VR still has a long way to go. John Riccitiello, the CEO of Unity Technologies, warned us all about the “gap of disappointment,” or the gap that is bound to exist between optimistic linear growth projections and the reality of VR growth. Using the smartphone industry as the foundations of their predictions, pundits who believe in linear growth fail to acknowledge two huge differences between smartphones and VR devices:

  1. Unlike VR, smartphones were subsidized by the network carriers, making the cost negligible
  2. People had years to get used to and embrace the value of mobile phones before smartphones exploded

The unrealistic expectations about the rate of adoption may fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy that VR is not yet ready for mass market. But based on the power of the content and experiences I saw at the Summit, it is just a matter of time.

We are moments away from the start of exciting platform revolution, the kind that will undoubtedly spawn new giants like Google and Facebook (or make these giants stronger). And while recent developments may make it seem like we are in a sprint to the ultimate finish when VR is here, I see it more as a marathon likely to play out in surprising and unexpected ways in the next five years. At the VR Summit, it felt like I was present at the birth of something new and exciting. And perhaps it was just youthful optimism, but more than any previous new platform, it feels like there is a sincere desire for this emerging platform to be driven by open innovation and collaboration and that is something virtual reality can teach the real reality.