As we enter the third year of the consumer virtual reality era, it’s more important than ever to offer non-gamers enough options to make them want to lay out some dough for a headset.
This year, the industry is readying its second generation of hardware–standalone headsets that have all the required computing onboard, rather than needing to be connected to a smartphone or tethered by wires to a PC. That’ll likely be a big step forward, as it should bring down the cost of getting a VR system. But there still needs to be great content.
No platform company has gotten as involved in the content creation process as Facebook-owned Oculus, the maker of the high-end Rift headset, as well as the forthcoming Oculus Go, and the provider of the software powering Samsung’s Gear VR. And while the company last year decided to shutter its in-house filmmaking division, Story Studio, it has committed to investing $250 million in third-party projects.
The dividends are already paying off. At the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier showcase last week, five Oculus-funded films were on display, including one, Wolves in the Wall, that had originally been a Story Studio project but which was eventually completed externally by several members of that team.
Oculus, like every other company in consumer VR, is well aware of the industry’s chicken-and-egg problem: If there’s not enough good content, consumers won’t get on board, but if they’re not sure consumers are going to buy hardware, content creators are wary of putting time, energy, and money into new projects.
Games are a big part of that dynamic, but there’s not enough game players to sustain the entire VR ecosystem. So, for Oculus, which wants to grow that ecosystem and inspire people to buy its hardware, it’s vital to ensure that there’s a steady flow of good experiences for everyone, not just gamers.
“We’re re-energized for 2018, working with storytellers and creators in VR,” says Colum Slevin, Oculus’s head of experiences, “to bring the best stories out and help creators and storytellers bring their best foot forward.”
Slevin says that when Story Studio–which made groundbreaking VR projects like Lost, Henry, and Dear Angelica–was formed, the idea was to figure out the medium’s potential for narrative storytelling. Now, from Oculus’s perspective, that impetus still exists, just within the external creative community, often with the company’s financial assistance.
VR is expected by some analysts to be a $38 billion industry by 2026.
When Oculus’s Story Studio was still operating, it gave the company an opportunity to produce pieces it knew to be special and bring a high level of care and storytelling expertise to bear. After the studio’s closure, those like Slevin still have a role in helping to curate what comes to market, and he believes that it’s still possible to ensure that quality projects are made and distributed.
“We’re continuing to get more selective about the types of projects” we support financially, Slevin says. “I’m hopeful that that seal of approval, and that special glow still comes along…. But we’re definitely focused on trying to elevate the community at large, which is where the diversity of styles come in. Mainly because I don’t think there’s one way to skin this cat, I don’t think there’s one style, one tone, one technical approach that’s going to crack VR wide open. It’s going to come from a hybrid approach, from a [variety] of experiences.”
Several of the five Oculus-funded pieces at Sundance featured interactivity in one way or another, including by incorporating what’s known as six-degrees-of freedom (6DOF), a system that recognizes users’ movements in 3D space, allowing them to move around, use their hands, and more. Slevin says “We’re very interested in the power of interactivity, and the power of 6DOF, and experiences that take advantage of all the wonderful aspects of VR, as opposed to just” limiting users to being in the middle of a 360-degree view.
Slevin, like most people deep in the VR industry, knows it’s going to be a long time before the technology is truly mainstream. But by now, he argues, developers have had a couple of years or more to begin to master the craft, and that in turn is starting to lead to higher-quality experiences that really leverage the power of the medium–things like a moment in Wolves in the Wall where the user is facing a young child holding a magnifying glass, and if you choose, you can lean forward and look through it. There’s a similar trick in the same film involving a Polaroid camera, which takes exactly the photo that can be seen through the viewfinder.
And while the virtual reality industry has a long way to go before it reaches its potential–Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year urged investors to be patient in their expectations for the technology–we’ve definitely come a long way in just over two years.
In short, Slevin says, “it’s a good time to be making VR.”