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Virtual Homogeneity: The Problem with Content

Virtual reality is fresh and exciting; nobody can deny that fact. Everybody’s talking VR and AR, the topic is so hot phrases like ‘transmogrified VR’ are now bubbling out of the virtual volcano faster than you say ‘gimmick’. In reality (ha!) the technology has existed upwards of twenty years, at least in its most embryonic form. The current influx of gadgets and hardware has propelled VR & AR into the commercial consumer stratosphere, solidifying its reputation as a technology accessible to non-techies. The era of geeky coders, bound to their bedrooms and home-built PC’s (definitely not Macs, don’t be a philistine) is well and truly over. Tech is cool, tech is trendy, tech is a mainstream interest.

One of the biggest questions facing the VR industry is whether or not it has longevity – is it just a fad?

Critics are fast to hark back to the failure of Google Glass, as though it somehow acted as a forerunner for future augmented technologies, paving the way for future wearable-tech flops. Google Glass was not a flop, it just bit the bullet too early, just as VR did in the nineties. But now the world is ready for VR, or at least it wants to be. My question is – is VR ready for the world?

Of course, we are already living in varying levels of virtual reality in our daily lives. Our mobile devices suck us in like a dementors kiss, we evaluate our self-worth on digital information in the form of Facebook likes and Tweets and mould our world around the ‘culturescape’ – a term coined by Vishen Lakhiani, Founder of Mindvalley:

“The world of absolute truth is fact-based. The world of the culturescape is opinion-based and agreement-based. Yet even though it exists solely in our heads, it is very, very real.”

Virtual reality is something we have collectively romanticised ever since our lives became increasingly digital, to truly live in between these two worlds, to break the technological fourth wall and enter another dimension, a dimension we can engineer, or can we? Amidst all of this longing and fetishisation of a mighty technology, have we turned a blind eye to the quality of content currently available? The hardware is just a vessel, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the guts of the matter?

As Chris Sacca acknowledges, we have become so engineering focused, so gadget obsessed, we have paid little attention to the emotional, psychological and intellectual effect that VR has, and boy, it’s a damn significant effect:

‘“[VR head-mounted displays] are incredible technical achievements yet what I worry about is that those displays are outpacing the rate of our biological and physiological adaptation…I’m really impressed by the [technical] teams’ abilities, but I don’t think we’re making the same investment in the biological and psychological ramifications of some of these things…”’

As Sacca mentions, the technical achievements are there

The hardware is polished (to an extent) and that should not be ignored, we know that poorly designed HMD’s lead to poor experiences, but now we have the tools, lets utilise them. As the title of this article suggests, there is a problem with content. In fact there are a few notable problems, but one that’s become clear is the homogenisation of themes. Now…I get it, themes exist to create structure and reference. Some themes exist due to popularity. The definition of a theme is ‘an idea that recurs,’ and in immersive storytelling, particularly the news-focused or political kind, there seems to be a trend focused around refugee’s and their crises in life.

Firstly, I’d like to mention that I do not disagree with or dislike the theme or the messages it attempts to convey, I support humanitarian causes as much as the next ethical human being.

Virtual reality, as Chris Milk so aptly coins it, is an ‘empathy machine’

Evidently the point of this style of immersive storytelling is to inspire empathy within the person experiencing the VR (or, if you will, 360° video – but that’s another debate). Got it. But how can it be that so many of the studios creating this content are churning out the same stuff.

Here’s the crux – virtual reality is a new mode of communication, and therefore a new way of depicting the refugee crisis. The first time I experienced one of these films in VR, I felt greatly moved – success! After the second, third, fourth, fifth, the theme began to lose its momentum. We as humans very quickly become desensitised to the things we see, particularly as they are repeated within a form.

It’s a wonderful thing that VR has unlocked a new a way of receiving news and becoming more attuned to someone’s story – our perception around sensitive issues is already changing thanks to the powerful and truly immersive nature of VR. But I implore those that deliver it to remain original, and not rely on the newness of the hardware and the sheer phenomenon of VR as a ticket to a long-lasting and empathetic audience.

Action happens through change, VR is a tool for change…

It has the ability to change the way we see and to change our relationships with those depicted, not behind a screen, but in front of our very eyes, periphery and all. In order to fully utilise this tool, we need not bastardise it with homogeny but rather innovate more than we’ve ever innovated before. I’m not saying don’t make films about refugee’s, I’m saying make a lot and make them well. Play with the form. Play with perspective. Do things that are different to the current trends. Challenge people, because sooner than you know the 360° format will become ‘same old’, and then what?

Written by Hannah Close

Hannah Close is in the Events Industry by day, a Photographer by night, and a Virtual Reality Obsessive 24/7. She currently heads up the VR front at The Old Truman Brewery, East London’s cultural and creative quarter. A self-proclaimed Wonder Junkie, Hannah is also passionate about disruptive technologies and their impact on the human condition.

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