Why virtual reality has to be for everyone

VR specialist Catherine Allen on building the future of the industry

As big investments continue to make waves across the industry, product launches hit the headlines each week and recent stats suggest more people are buying their own headsets, the future looks bright for VR.

But despite the rise in sales, there are many people without access to VR - and just as many who haven't tried it at all. Of course there's nothing new about that. Early adopters armed with more money and more technical know-how than regular consumers have always been the first to try out new tech shortly after it launches.

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But what it means is that content is being created for early adopters, consumed by early adopters and informed by early adopter viewpoints again and again. This has now become a loop that excludes a vast majority of the public.

For all of its game-changing possibilities – on both personal and global scales, as well as across a huge range of industries – VR technology is in danger of growing into a huge opportunity missed.

VR for the many, not the few

Why Virtual Reality Has To Be For Everyone

(Image credit: Jim Johnson)

But all is not yet lost. As the VR industry is still arguably in its infancy, we have a chance right now to shape the way it develops and ensure it's as open and inclusive as possible.

To better understand how this can be done, we spoke to award-winning VR specialist Catherine Allen, who is passionate about bringing creative VR experiences to a broad range of audiences.

"There is so much great story-driven and artistic VR content coming out at the moment, however there are not many ways for it to reach the general public," she told us. "This means that sadly the stats show the audience for VR right now isn't particularly diverse."

Allen, with her newly-launched company Limina Immersive, is trying to do exactly that and provide a way for the general public to experience and talk about artistic, high quality VR. The Limina VR Weekender, a brand new VR arts festival, was co-produced with Watershed in Bristol and held over the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of December.

"We have spent the last year or so in research-mode learning as much as we can about how VR can work as a collective cultural experience that people would do in their spare time as a day or evening out - much like theatre or cinema," Allen explained. "The Limina VR Weekender was a way of building on our learnings, but also stating, loudly and proudly to the world our approach to the challenge of getting VR to mainstream audiences."

Creating the UK's first VR arts festival

Why Virtual Reality Has To Be For Everyone

(Image credit - Emma Hughes)

As well as leading the production of two of the BBC's first VR experiences, Allen started the VR Diversity Initiative and has also worked within AR and educational apps too. For the Limina VR Weekender she took on a role of curator, bringing together lots of different experiences, from watching a world-class orchestra performing Mozart's Requiem in a French cathedral to experiencing a fantastical, mythology-inspired journey through Dakar in Senegal.

"Essentially I wanted to demonstrate a range of content that showed off VR as an artistic medium in its own right," she said. "I intentionally included some thought provoking and challenging work as I wanted to start discussions. VR desperately needs a critical discourse. Hopefully after seeing a range of genres of creative VR at the festival our audiences will be able to start to develop their own tastes and a critical approach."

Although the idea of bringing VR experiences to the public sounds inspiring, we wanted to find out more about how that worked logistically. "Our audience saw VR in our own pop-up VR theatre, which seated six people per 30 min session," Catherine told us.

Why Virtual Reality Has To Be For Everyone

(Image credit - Emma Hughes)

But crucially, the event wasn't just focused on presenting the medium and then the audience heading out of the door. For such a new technology, discussion is imperative in prompting people to think differently, share their views and more than anything feel empowered about developing the critical approach Allen believes is so important.

"I wanted to get this fantastic work to the public to start an audience culture around the content," Allen explained. "Much in the same way that film, music and fine art have an audience culture around them as art forms in their own right."

To build this culture and empower people to share their opinions, Allen ran a series of Q&A discussions with every single audience group, which prompted discussions led by a subject expert. "It was utterly fascinating," she said. "At times it was pretty moving too to see people's profound reactions to the content."

Allen explained: "For instance, audiences often came out of BDH's Wonderful You with a whole new level of understanding and wonder around how our five senses develop in the womb. Some people even had very reflective and almost spiritual responses to the content they experienced."

In the past we've explored how VR experiences may have the power to elicit much stronger responses than the entertainment channels we're used to - for better and for worse. But let's not forget that although VR may seem isolating when you're experiencing it, there's a huge potential for it to actually bring people closer together if it's executed in the right way.

"Overall audiences tended to describe VR as having the potential for a great evening out with friends, family or loved ones. I feel there is a lot of untapped market potential here," said Allen.

Identifying the VR industry blind spots

Why Virtual Reality Has To Be For Everyone

We spoke to Allen about whether she felt any specific groups were overlooked by the industry and the conversation quickly turned to women. "Research has shown that men are more likely to invest in the latest technology. They tend to be more likely to want to try it out and also more comfortable with it once they've tried it," Allen explained.

Certainly, research from EY about VR and gender showed women are less likely than men to use a dedicated VR headset. But what's more, once they do try VR, women are less impressed by it than men, using words like "futuristic" or "underwhelming" whereas men choose words like "positive" and "realistic". This may seem like a small difference, but suggests that the female perspective is not explicitly factored into the development of VR experiences.

Again, this isn't particularly surprising given more men are early adopters, but it creates the same closed loop. "Because more men are using it and learning about it, what tends to happen is it's then made for men more and more," said Allen.

Early adopters always have been - and always will be - important in the development of new mediums. But in order for VR to sustain itself, from both a creative and commercial point of view, it must appeal to mainstream audiences.

"Without putting content to the mainstream (who mostly don't own headsets), we won't know what sort of content works and what doesn't," said Allen. It's impossible to develop a new form of creative media in a vacuum. Right now we are at risk of that happening."

She added: "The medium will stagnate unless we find ways of creating feedback loops with the mainstream public who don't already own headsets."

Allen pointed to the importance of accessible mobile and location-based VR, like next year's release of the Oculus Go. She believes that low cost headsets could do a good job at shaking up the state of the industry and addressing many of the issues we've discussed.

Although there's promise for the future as the hardware becomes easier to get hold of, there still might be apprehension from tech companies that care about the bottom line, making money and keeping early adopters happy.

But Allen urges companies to take risks, especially because there are many opportunities in doing so. "It might be a big risk, because you're working out an audience that doesn't have a headset. But unless it happens, unless people take the jumps, we're not going to reap the rewards of VR as a new medium in its own right. And the rewards of discovering new markets and owning that, they could be huge."

(Additional image credit for lead image - Cambridge Film Festival)


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