I was damp and slightly apprehensive when I arrived at Conway Hall for London's Develop:VR conference. I was last here several years ago,told to smile and clap politely at each of my digital marketing CEO's jokes, briefed beforehand to ensure I knew when it was appropriate to giggle.
It's hard to think about the past though, when so much of Develop:VR is looking optimistically towards the future. The event itself feels quite scrappy, with a reasonably sized exhibition hall and two speaker rooms. There's still a buzz to the event, with the audience for keynote speaker Dean Johnson, Brandwidth's head of innovation, spreading out of the small room and into the hall beyond.
"The problem is VR is still expendable," he said to the crowd. "At the moment, if we took away your smartphone it would be like having your arm or head chopped off. If we took VR away now, we would all be disappointed to say the least, but outside this room, most people haven't tried it ‚Äď let alone know what it is."
"If it went away, they wouldn't give a shit."
Develop:VR is one of the first virtual reality focused conferences, at least in the UK. Virtual reality isn't theoretical or forthcoming anymore and, as 2017 approaches, it brings with it the dawning realisation that the narrative of "the year of VR" is played out, and that 2017 can't claim to be precisely that again but instead has to be spun out as "the year VR becomes viable".
"This is the first year that people still won't necessarily be buying it, but they'll be talking about VR," Johnson tells me. "There will be videos of people at Christmas that have got VR headsets on and falling over and punching Christmas trees. And it's the first time it will actually be part of the regular consumer conversation."
Emotion & education
The keynote suggested that people look away from games and entertainment but towards public-sector areas like healthcare and education. A lot of people on the expo floor also admitted to me off-the-record that they're making more money producing virtual reality products under NDA for companies than they are with consumer facing experiences. Yet it's these consumer facing experiences that drive the adoption of VR, and ensure that more and more people recognise the technology's potential.
Today, people are coming at the content dilemma from a lot of different sides. Talks include doctors and scientists experimenting with virtual reality - (VR to help with phantom limb pain, for instance), discussions about the role of narrative, or how you can make virtual reality financially viable.
Dan Efergan, the group creative director of "interactive stuff" at Aardman and final speaker of the day, sat down to talk to me about how excited he was for new technological advances that could enhance storytelling and help advance the medium. Efergan directed We Wait, a dramatisation of migrants travelling from Turkey to Greece made with BBC R&D, that was released in June this year for Oculus Rift.
"The addition of things like eye-tracking is kind of a stepping stone to the stuff we were doing with We Wait," said Efergan. "We started on that because we were interested in things like eye contact. Obviously eye contact is so animalistic, it's ingrained as an emotional response, whether that's passive or aggressive or all the other things that come with it. Using this stuff moving forwards could help to deepen connections, emotions or story."
Efergen mentions VR as something he was wary of for a long time: "I didn't like the disconnection it was creating. I've got young kids, and I was excited by augmented reality because I thought finally we can be outside playing in the woods and making it game-like. Then the Google Glass crashed and VR came along, and my last experience of VR had been at Disneyland back in 96, 97, and I wasn't that impressed.
"That all changed when I put the HTC Vive on, and played Fantastic Contraption. I'd put a tool down behind me while I worked on something and then I leaned back to grab it without looking where it was, and I had this sudden realisation that this was all going to work. That I was here, and I feel like I'm here."
So Efergen got involved heavily in VR, describing himself as "completely hooked", and characterising the disconnect as something akin to going to the cinema. "If you spend all day in it, something's probably wrong, but if you go and immerse yourself for a period of time, it's alright. I'm in, I'm fully sold now."
The end of a beta year
But even though Develop:VR is perhaps overcrowded, and Efergen admits that now even his mum knows what virtual reality is, analysts have recently revised down their predictions for virtual reality after Black Friday. People might have grasped the concept of virtual reality now, but they aren't putting the cash down for a headset of their own; not yet.
Bertie Mills, MD for VR marketing outfit Virtual Umbrella, said it could all be a matter of perspective. "I feel like, despite 2016 being heralded as the year of VR, from the consumer awareness perspective it was still a bit of a beta test. So a lot of the hype and a lot of the excitement that people were feeling was based on analyst predictions.
"2017 is going to be all about improving and learning from this year," said Mills. "This time last year, or even this time six months ago, it was a real struggle to get people to try VR, but nowadays they're a lot more open to it. It's not, 'Oh, this is just for videogames', yet we still have an issue with people being worried about looking stupid.
"What you see a lot is someone will put a VR headset on and then all their friends will point at them and laugh. It's like, 'Why are you laughing?' It's a VR headset. It's not like he's falling in a puddle. It's just a piece of hardware on his face. At the end of the day, it's no different to me holding a phone to my ear, but perception is going to be huge."
Mills admits that right now, the whole VR ecosystem is "completely unpredictable", as established brands and new players are forced to make big moves to garner attention. For the longest time, anything including the word virtual reality has had money thrown at it by investors, but now that the technology is staring everyone in the face, people are starting to think about how this can be made viable.
The VR industry needs to take the infectious enthusiasm for the craft on display at conferences like this, show people that this isn't just a phase and start figuring out exactly what works. For the different platforms that also means working out what makes them unique.
2017 isn't going to be "the year of VR" so much as the awkward adolescence of virtual reality. Its big challenge now is to survive the technological high school that indicates I've pushed this metaphor a bit too far. Not another suspension, please.
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