Virtual Reality will indubitably alter our society in ways which we cannot yet fathom. There are however also quite predictable consequences of the increased importance and omnipresent of VR in our society. These consequential changes will have both positive and negative impacts, just as many powerful technologies and innovations have proven to have over time. Smartphones have, for example, empowered anyone able to afford one to perform more actions than most computers could just ten years ago. The downside is that people have developed addictions and a strong dependence on these devices, which can affect posture, eye sight and largely limit social interaction to the digital realm.
Examining effects and changes on a societal level, one can already note a few that will definitely occur. The following three are what I believe to be the most impactful changes in the first generation of this new wave of Virtual Reality:
Since Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift, the idea of social VR has gained more acceptance and popularity among VR enthusiasts. Technological virtual worlds, such as SecondLife and World of Warcraft, have existed for over a decade and have allowed users to interact via chat and actions in the virtual space. This space has however always been noticeably separated from the real, physical reality and has therefore not been an optimal social platform, though indisputably successful. Because of Virtual Reality’s ability to immerse a user in a virtual world to a greater extent than ever before, the virtual space has become a more attractive realm to explore, especially with other users.
Though Facebook’s exact plans regarding Oculus are still rather vague to the public, many others have taken interest in social VR. Thus far, it seems therefore that there is a solid future for this application of VR. This means that VR users will be interacting on a daily basis in a virtual space, much like users of social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram do. Users may represent themselves virtually by means of an avatar, that may or may not be a photorealistic depiction of them. The necessity for this in order to create a believable and valuable virtual social interaction has been hotly debated, however it may simply be a matter of time before this is established.
It is also widely believed that through the increased availability and use of Virtual Reality, the number of real life interactions will decrease proportionately, effectively transitioning to a preference of virtual interaction over physical interaction. This will open up a lot of opportunities in terms of communication and connectivity but will also lead to increased isolation. This is true for Facebook in a similar sense, as the increased ease of communication seems to have led to a decrease in the quality of communication. Social interactions in VR should therefore not become an alternative to real life interactions but rather serve as a more limitless way to create experiences with friends and loved ones.
With the ubiquity of VR, there will undoubtedly be a rise in addiction, which will be greater than with any other technology. Smartphone, video game and Internet (content) addiction are common issues in society and have been acknowledged as legitimate disorders. These addictions are defined by the fact that the excessive use of the technology interferes with a person’s daily life and can lead to mental and physical health problems. VR addiction will be a massive issue once the technology is developed to the point where wearing an HMD for hours on end is not a comfort issue and when there are so many uses, apps and games that users can be entertained endlessly. Much like Internet use and video games, Virtual Reality will provide an escape for many people, which will be so attractive that it may surpass the appeal of the real world at some point. Because of the immersion VR offers, users may also become less aware of the amount of time spent using the device.
It can be foreseen that once VR has matured as a technology and overcome the many technological hurdles it has faced during it’s development, it will become so powerful that the allure of virtual worlds with endless possibilities of travel, games, sex, interaction with others and achieving the impossible will become so great that some will spend as much time as humanly possible in VR. A short film dubbed “Uncanny Valley” depicts a dystopian future with VR addicts that shows an interesting take on the future of this issue and the potential pitfalls of Virtual Reality overall.
This is a rather daunting prediction for VR, as it has the potential to reduce the amount of real life human interaction that takes place and lead to a greater percentage of isolated individuals in society. Companies in the VR business will be responsible for cautioning users about the inherent dangers of excessive use, which will of course also need to be investigated by means of long term scientific studies. If this concern is addressed early and combatted correctly, the threat of VR addiction can be greatly reduced and it may not impact society to the degree it might otherwise.
The rise of Virtual Reality will go hand-in-hand with a rise in 360° visual content, which can already be seen in pop culture. A handful of music videos, concert videos and movie promotions have been released that can be experienced in VR or simply as a 360° rotatable YouTube video, which shows that there is already an interest in this content, even without the ubiquity of VR. Google Cardboard is the most accessible VR device so far, which allows basic features like the viewing of 360° content in a more immersive way as well as the use basic VR games and apps. It is therefore already evident that a shift will occur in the type of content we consume, which can be seen as a natural evolution on the Internet; from text, to images, to video, to 360° images and video. This shift will of course become more evident once more VR devices become available and once more content has been developed. The development of this content is also an important driver of VR adoption, especially mobile VR, and will decide whether the technology thrives or once again fails to enter global technological mainstream use. 360° content will eventually become as ubiquitous as photos and videos have become, with cameras dropping in price (leading to increasingly more UGC) and with the realization that it offers a more comprehensive depiction of reality. VR focused 360° content will therefore definitely become a new standard for media consumption, though it will still exist side by side with “normal” photo and video.
To find out more about marketing opportunities in VR, check out my blog post next Sunday.