VR is a controversial topic. For some, it’s a technological panacea, a wave of the future. Others, sometimes justifiably, see it as a hubristic cash grab whose saving grace is the occasional hardware innovation beyond pure novelty. After being subjected to a seemingly endless ouroboros of PR and hype campaigns, no one can be faulted for growing cynical or weary in the face of bold promises.
Having spent time working in the consumer-facing side of the VR industry, it’s clear that the brand damage inflicted has kept much-needed development talent far away, and left firms that are eager to enter the market with little choice but to fund underwhelming projects. Bad products hurt public opinion, in turn hurting developer initiative. It is a cycle all too familiar to anyone who knows what the past decade of the mobile games market looks like.
To tackle this, we have to look back at a similar era in the history of visual media.
Film has had its fair share of controversy, but it seems right to reach for a less obvious allegory. To address the follies of VR’s reception, we have to find a comparable scenario, wherein some upstart trend, later becoming its own institution, first drew the ire and critical eye of neighboring mediums. Sound displaced silent films to the point of extinction; the move to color then carried with it a new set of creative and emotional baggage, that simply resolved in time by relegating its predecessor as a cherished arthouse relic.
We need to look deeper for a truly comparable scenario, where the players are not staring down the barrel of an untimely or unfair demise, but are at risk of being swallowed by an unknown foe. Specifically, one that requires a high adoption rate in the face of an established institution. No better example comes to mind than the power struggle between radio and television. The collateral damage of the conflict was narrow, but meaningful: radio plays, and our attention spans.
Many of our nascent fears and projections onto VR as a platform are echoed across time from the public perception of television. Many at the time felt that the visual nature of the medium would displace the then rich, intimate atmosphere of radio, a shared hallucination that relied on imagination much in the same way as a book. Radio was argued to keep the mind sharp, and to deepen the ties of the audience. Television, by contrast, pulled the focus away from one’s fellow audience towards itself, and was often financially out of reach, a luxury item with poor coverage and limited content. At a glance, it made a poor substitute for the reliable and inexpensive radio, offering nothing beyond eye candy and technical novelty. Radio was dominant, the one-size-fits-all information platform of choice – a practical way of engaging with media and enriching your life, here to stay. Even when television finally won, the derogatory terms leveraged towards it as an anti-intellectual time-waster stuck, and were often felt to truly embody it.
When the gravitational pull of television’s promise finally surmounted the issue of adoption, a “killer app” still had yet to emerge. Television got lucky the same way many luxury consumer goods of the previous century did: post-war prosperity. After a sprint through hell, people were searching for the good life, and signifiers that indicated this to their ego and friends sold like gangbusters. Television was not exactly adopted for industrial use as computers were in the business or manufacturing sectors; for once, consumers led the way.
California’s stagnant film industry, with its monolithic institutions and established pantheon of legendary talent, proved growingly inaccessible to audiences and new talent alike. Investment turned to a less politically controversial, as of then untested, medium: television. With lower barriers to entry, and an audience desperate for content to justify their purchase, capital was free to invest in risky creative endeavors, without the baggage of the traditional film industry. Early productions had a more play-like or theatrical quality, eschewing film’s production value and immersion in favor of budget- and imagination-friendly shows. The popularity of The Honeymooners established sitcoms as the fledgling medium’s watershed moment, its “killer app”, paving the way for its resplendent successors that we know today, I Love Lucy and the like.
Eventually, neither sitcoms, even matured ones, nor police procedurals, could fill the American audience’s growing demand for content. Thanks to advertising and rapid growth, networks found themselves with surplus time slots that urgently needed filling. Like any other high-capacity venue, unused time slots made for convenient real estate to house experimental content. Sci-fi horror anthologies were a perfect fit for time slots not occupied by variety, talk shows, or the news. The new format ditched the pulpy, outlandish, swashbuckling adventures of early science fiction in favor of more thought-provoking approaches, challenging the viewer rather than fulfilling a power fantasy.
In just a few decades, television went from a novelty to an accessible intersection of hardware saturation, fresh writing talent, playwrights, special effects artists, and undiscovered acting talent. It was fringe artistic talent and experimental techniques that helped forge the recognition television receives today as an equal amongst its peers, and while our attention spans suffered, radio plays eventually escaped their untimely demise, finding a new home with podcast enthusiasts.
VR, like television, is not here to replace what is often presumed to go down in history as its direct predecessor. It is instead complementary, an addition to an existing family, bringing with it the promise of a new means of expression. Unlike PCs or consoles, it is not burdened with the standardized design and institutional baggage that have rendered those platforms inaccessible to unfamiliar audiences. VR offers us a fresh start, a clean slate that is familiar yet undetermined, just as television was for those experienced in film and play production. It is new ground that favors arthouse indies, those willing to take unconventional risks, where large well-funded efforts struggle to gain popularity.
VR is not the solution to indie art game viability, but it is an opportunity to play the landscape to their advantage. VR arcades open the hardware up to the general public who otherwise cannot or would not make the purchase, but are eager to embrace particular content, the lack of which makes them shy away from traditional game genres. Not unlike how television brought the nation together through unified cultural experiences, VR reviving the oft-pined-for arcade gives people a reason to socialize out of the home, in an era otherwise characterized by technologically-accelerated atomization.
The reticence towards the platform most people exhibit is understandable; we’re a generation numb to over-reaching promises thanks to unprecedented technological progress. VR’s promises of today smack of the failure to deliver upon its first arrival over 30 years ago, leaving many afraid of pursuing yet another hobby with expensive up-front cost.
When it comes to technology, people often refer to “The Singularity”, a point at which the outcome of rapid exponential progress exceeds our capacity for prediction. Yet, we rarely mention a key feature of any singularity: the event horizon which obscures it from view. It is something that you cannot perceive until you are trapped within its gravity well. It reaches backwards into the past and forward into the future, until it all collapses, obliterating all pretenses, merging all possibilities into one unforeseeable outcome. What was unfamiliar and outlandish now becomes foundational, assumed to have always been there and to always be there in the future. Try to remember how it felt before smartphones or broadband internet (for those old enough), then try explaining it to anyone. While you can refer to changes in practical behavior, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape the gravitational pull of the new zeitgeist born from those events to truly describe the feeling.
Virtual reality tech is not the singularity in question here; rather, it is the gravitational force that draws us ever closer to the “killer app”. Nobody can predict the impact it will have on the games industry long term, but as a heavily experimental medium with no established standards, it would do indies well to set the tone of the aesthetic discourse for the future audience.
VR will seem on the distant horizon forever, until it isn’t.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice