Remember a few years ago when 3D films hit cinemas again, for the third or fourth time in cinema history? This was it, we were told, 3D is here to stay and that it will change cinema. All of that crap 3D that studios had tried to introduce occasionally over the last century? That's because the technology was actually rubbish. But this time around, it works well.
And yet here we are in 2015 with 3D cinema on the decline and audiences actively choosing 2D screenings instead. What went wrong? And could VR face the same fate? The problem is that VR and 3D cinema both answer a question that hasn't been asked. Essentially, there is no compelling need for it - nor any content that makes use of it effectively.
For a long time, I've been enthusiastic about the future of virtual reality. Any chance I get, I'll try out an Oculus or a Gear VR. But the more VR "experiences" I try, the more disappointed I am.
There are quite a lot of "experiences" available now as VR has become the PR wheeze-du-jour. For example, remember reading about the Game of Thrones 'experience'? Or what about when as a tie-in with Interstellar you could 'experience' zero-gravity?
A VR experience is a relatively impressive yet straightforward thing to build that will gain headlines and win the attention of the press. It is filling the same role that building an app did a few years ago, or organising a flashmob did before that. (I'm pretty sure if you turned up at a London train station and started dancing now commuters would simply assume that you're filming an advert.)
Ultimately though, wouldn't you prefer to actually watch Game of Thrones or Interstellar?
The fact we call what we do in VR an "experience" is part of the problem. Though the technology is now viable, nobody really knows what it is actually for. Are the "experiences" we have games? Are they tech demos? What's the point?
If you don't believe me, give Google Cardboard a try. You'll be enthusiastic for about 15 minutes, trying all of the different apps, before putting it down and leaving it on the shelf as you continue to use your boring old two dimensional phone.
Earlier this week I went to the British Museum to try a new VR demo the institution has created with the help of Samsung's Gear VR headset. The idea was that you'd be immersed in a Bronze Age roundhouse, and get more of a feel for what it was actually like a couple of thousand years ago.
As a public relations exercise it worked: I went to the launch because of the promise of VR and you're now reading about it. You now know that Samsung makes a VR headset known as the "Gear VR" and you know now that it is such a nice brand it works to aid educational endeavours like this one. You also know the British Museum is on the cutting edge of museum technology and that there's a new exhibition on the Celts.
The technology worked too: When I moved my head, what I saw in vision also moved with me. It was perfectly competent.
But here's the awkward part. I couldn't help but be unimpressed. Intellectually I know that it must have taken a lot of hard work to build a device capable of doing what it was doing, but as I virtually stood there, in a little virtual roundhouse made with PS2-calibre graphics, I secretly felt it was a better idea in principle than in practice.
The reason is fairly clearly one of resources: while it is a big organisation, the British Museum is presumably, understandably spending most of its time and money on looking after the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles, not building virtual worlds. So when my mind leapt to making comparisons with pseudo-historical games like Assassin's Creed, which took several years to make and employed the skills of hundreds of people, it was going to come off poorly in comparison.
Yet Assassin's Creed, for my money, is a far more immersive and potentially educational experience. What is likely to be a better representation of the past? A fully fleshed out, living and breathing simulation on a 2D television, or a few low-res 3D objects that happen to be on a device strapped to my face? It apparently took an entire year for one of Ubisoft's artists to recreate Notre Dame in Paris for Assassin's Creed: Unity - that's a level of detail that a small museum team could never afford.
For my money, the British Museum would have been better off producing a Skyrim mod and using that world as a starting point. Just remove the dragons and you're already halfway there.
Why would we even need VR?
Don't Devalue VR
My point though isn't to criticise the British Museum, which should be applauded for trying out new ways to engage audiences, but I do think that it is perhaps time for the tech industry to move away from VR "experiences" and towards viable VR applications. If everyone's first experience of VR is with a mildly disappointing app like the one I used at the museum, are they really going to be convinced to cough up cash when "proper" VR happens? Just as buying 3D glasses for your TV seems like a stupid idea, will the idea of "VR" end up so devalued it puts people off?
There are already some good examples of VR done well. TechRepublic has a fascinating feature on how VR could help in medicine, for example. VR could apparently help treat everything from PTSD to phantom limb pain, as well as train doctors in a safe environment. What these examples tend to have in common is that it has been clearly thought through exactly how VR will be used to achieve specific objectives, rather than just bolted on to make something seem a bit more cutting edge.
Image credit: Medical Realities
There's definitely a case for museums using VR. The British Museum appears to be thinking along the right lines by enabling visitors to see objects in context and recreating historical settings. But it is only going to work if the content is good and the expectations of the audience are managed accordingly.
The tech industry needs to get over the fact that "VR" sounds futuristic, and instead start focusing on the quality of the actual content. People today spend their lives inside computer generated worlds in games, and I said above, simply making a crappier version of that isn't going to work. By analogy, having a 55-inch 4K television in your home is a good start but it isn't going to make TV any better if all you watch is Adam Sandler films and Bargain Hunt.
There will no doubt be legitimate uses for VR in the future, quite probably in learning. But in the mean time, these "experiences" are devaluing the medium, and risks making something that could be legitimately transformative look like a cheap magic trick in the process.