Why It Might Not Be a Good Idea to Use the Word ‘Never’ in Headlines about VR

Tom Nickel
5 min readMay 26, 2017
VR Workshop at Lycee Preah Sisowath. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Last week Todd Spangler published an Op Ed piece in “Variety,” under the headline, “Why Virtual Reality Will Never Be a Mainstream Platform.” He offered the following points in support of his belief:

1) VR will not penetrate the living room, because …

— It doesn’t pass the Must-Have Test

— It takes too much effort to get set-up, requires too big a commitment

— Consumers of entertainment, especially Millennials, are used to multi-tasking during consumption, not focusing on one thing

— Consumers of entertainment don’t want to work hard paying attention to their stories

2) We have not seen VR really enhance the power of storytelling

3) The Future of VR is video games, training, and specialized destination venues

I did not list these points in order to dismiss them. I listed them so I could think about them, so I could try to get inside the mindset of a presumably intelligent and perceptive commentator and see the world in a way that would make me disbelief in VR. And besides, I don’t need to dismiss them. Almost everyone else already has.

It’s easy. You just acknowledge his points and say Must-Have content and easier set-up are coming. People do pay attention to compelling material, and maybe the VR segment lengths will be shorter, with the opportunity to take a break or continue.

There is no question that 360 degree videos and fully synthesized VR will call for new storytelling techniques and conventions, but what makes a narrative a narrative, and what causes us to care about a character will be the same as they’ve always been. So why can’t Spangler see that it will take a little more time and trials to learn new tricks? Is he just trying to be provocative, or does he really believe that there will be no place for VR in each household, like Ken Olsen of DEC making the prophesy in 1977 that there was no market for computers in the home?

VR Headsets of the Future

I think VR will be as mainstream as clothing; in fact, I think VR will be more like clothing than something clearly separate from us, like TVs or computers. It will be the interface to all of our digital support systems (bots, AIs, whatever they’re called) — and the communications platform for most important person-to-person interaction. That’s what I believe, and I’m not just trying to be provocative.

Most of all, I think VR will be ubiquitous because it already is. The socially-constructed, consensus reality we share is virtual. The universe doesn’t actually exist the way we experience it. We create some version of reality based on what our input devices can pick up and we take it as the real thing, because, for the most part, it works. Still, to be awake and conscious is to be in VR, not R. What we call VR now, as in “the VR industry,” is our primitive early effort to externalize what we do all the time as awake and conscious entities. Just like a telephone externalizes and extends our vocal and auditory capabilities, VR externalizes and extends the inner 360 video we’re continuously producing.

Spangler is right. There are “failed” technologies that seemed to have universal applicability at first but have turned out to be mostly niche devices, like Segways. Spangler thinks VR will be more or less like Segways. Or 3D TV, to which he explicitly compares VR in his Op Ed piece. It’s a bad comparison. 3D TV is an embellishment on the high-end of an existing medium. It isn’t just the frosting on the cake, it is more like, the candy pieces in the frosting on the cake.

VR is something 100% different, in its immersiveness, in the natural real-world-style interactions it affords, and in the full range of interpersonal information it provides. Texting adds immediacy to the telegram. Phone calls add inflection to the immediate interaction. VR transmits all that plus body position data and head tracking — unconscious micro-motions integral to effective communication. It is this kind of full bandwidth exchange that makes VR unlike any other medium and ensures it will be with us in every room of the house in both stationary and mobile options.

It also addresses Spangler’s final, and dated, constraint — VR is isolating. He got jumped on for the next few days for that one, what with Oculus “Rooms” already up and running and more sure to come. The way we perceive these media transitions is predictable. TV felt isolating at first, because it changed existing ways of not being isolated. Now, watching TV is seen as a togetherness thing. Watching TV together is spending time together. Well, watching TV in VR together, no matter where our physical bodies might be, will be a thing; in fact, it already is. It’s one of the first things people want to do in “Rooms” — watch TV with their friends who are somewhere else.

I think we will look back on this period and say, “Ha! We thought it was about watching TV!” I think VR accoutrements will emerge, like TV Tables and Remotes did. I think Spangler will say he was just kidding. Which leads me to one last point. Now, we have to be surprising or novel or, more likely, shocking to gain attention in a marketplace where people’s focus is the most valuable commodity. Even though it isn’t a commodity. In VR, it will not be this way.

I am evolving a theory of the Universal Principles of Storytelling as we will see them applied in VR. One hypothesis within my theoretical framework is that the Place-Intimacy of VR eliminates the need to be shocking in order to gain attention and hold it. Feeling as close to someone as VR allows makes shocking too-shocking. You don’t want that stuff. The kind of content you’d like your young son or daughter to experience — that’s what I think will be most engaging in VR anyway.

I am aware that this flies in the face of predictions that VR will be the ultimate porn, for example. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about good storytelling, in the tradition of Gilgamesh and Homer, Dickens and Shakespeare. There will be porn. There will be Grand Canyon Hang Gliding and Virtual Iraq to treat PTSD. And, I believe, delivered episodically in little self-contained segments, there will also be a wonderful new wave of place-immersive storytelling.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos