Public VR—Opportunities and Pitfalls

Photo: Josh Goldblum Virtual Reality Headset

Public VR—Opportunities and Pitfalls

By Josh Goldblum,Bluecadet

When Facebook purchased Oculus for over $2 billion, it was a huge vote of confidence from the pioneering social network on the future ubiquity of virtual reality experiences. Since that time, many digital agencies have scrambled to get up to speed with this new medium. We have sought to explore VR's potential, map it's limitations and chart how this technology can best serve our clients’ stories, content and conversions.

At Bluecadet, much of the experiential design work we do is for museums, libraries and public cultural space. Museums, in particular, can serve as an interesting case study for the application and pitfalls of VR since they serve users both offsite as well as in physical shared spaces. Additionally, museums are always on the lookout for new ways to package their content to excite and enthrall visitors. Accordingly, we have produced experiences on a range of platforms, from mobile devices to giant multiuser touch walls. To us, VR is another platform, another place to package our client's content and create a compelling experience. 

Let's start by extolling VR's virtues. 

The current generation of VR experiences clearly lives up to the hype. From the Oculus to the HTC Vive, to GearVR to Google Cardboard to an enhanced McDonald's Happy Meal box, VR experiences are pretty damn impressive. Compared with the past discrepancy between the hype and promise of previous offerings of virtual and augmented reality (I'm looking at you, Google Glass) this generation of software and hardware really delivers. It is a compelling new medium with its own evolving vocabulary and it shows every indication of becoming ubiquitous.  

VR is especially compelling for museums since it offers wish-fulfilling immersion to museumgoers while offering curators and educators a new method to connect visitor to content. VR could be a time machine and a teleportation device—a visitor could explore historic locales, separated by thousands of miles and years in an instant. The experience could feature layered information, interpretation and sound. It could allow a user to shrink, to grow, to fly and dive. It could completely separate users from their environment. It can transport a user to a fireside by a river or an ancient temple. It can even be used to explore areas that they are not normally permitted to travel. This could include the cockpit of an aircraft, a protected historical site or a personal space. VR could even allow users to occupy different bodies, allowing users to safely explore their own identity and virtually occupy another person's perspective.  

But it’s not all there yet. 

All of this fantastic immersion has implications when it happens in public spaces and some of these implications are decidedly negative. Many of these immersive experiences separate a user from their environment. Users wearing a VR headset are cast into a new environment and may become far less aware of their actual surroundings. While the prospect of transporting a visitor from a white-walled gallery to Van Gogh's yellow house in 19th century France seems amazing, the prospect of an enthralled visitor stumbling blindly through the gallery into the paintings themselves is a real concern to museum staff. This issue can be solved through design. One common convention has been to have a docent available to support and monitor the experience. While this keeps visitors for plowing into masterworks, it presents a very real labor cost. 

The current generation of VR experiences is largely geared to the personal and individual. This runs counter to the basic function of museums, which is (and I would contend should be) a group experience. In our work with touch surfaces, we have found that larger collaborative surfaces which allow for group dynamics, conversation, laughter and group observations tend to be more effective than smaller individual experiences. In contrast, the user wearing a VR headset is having that experience in relative isolation. Further, the experience doesn't always leverage the museum's best assets, which are their artifacts and other people. While AR technologies, like the HoloLens, which layer content may in part address this issue, currently headsets by design are not designed to support group interaction. 

Durability is also a serious concern with VR headsets for use in public spaces. The Oculus is an amazing device but was clearly designed for individual consumer use. For a museum like the National Air and Space Museum that greets over 8 million visitors a year, wear and tear occur at an exponential rate. Unlike touch surfaces, VR headsets have a multitude of exposed, precision parts. For science and natural history museums especially, which continually welcome hordes of animated school children, these carefully tooled devices likely don't stand a chance. Also on the topic of high-use, hygiene is a legitimate issue. Sharing devices can be gross, especially when these devices include cloth bands and are not merely expanses of easy-to-clean glass. Many museums have had the Purell and docent handy, but this is a bit of a hack and still doesn't get around the issue.

So, where does all this leave us? 

Even with many challenges to overcome and address it’s plain to see that VR is evolving incredibly quickly. Experiences like The Void (https://thevoid.com/) are tackling some of VR’s biggest challenges and by leveraging complex computer vision and custom game rooms to create immersive and real-time interactive environments. The technology and conventions for capturing 360 video are taking shape and the next generation of 360 video compositing tools will arrive. As more VR content is created, the delivery platforms will also evolve and extend beyond the single user headset. Even within the headset, the opportunities for group play and collaboration will take shape. 

To this end, even if VR isn’t completely there. Even if the vast majority of people don’t have the headsets and the clients haven’t issued the RFPs I would encourage agencies and clients alike to dive in.  The first generation of designers to jump in will have an advantage as these technologies take hold and will have a huge advantage and fluency when VR fully arrives. 

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