Mar 02

Preparing for a Real Virtual Reality Experience

As a veteran of SXSW Interactive, one of the lessons I’ve learned from past experience is that it’s impossible to explore everything that goes on during the five-day event. I have great admiration for the overly ambitious attendee, badge around her neck and smartwatch synced with a calendar full of appointments, who resolves to hear every panel and make a cameo at every party, but I know the overstimulation will eventually catch up to her, and she’ll end up a Southwestern Sisyphus, full of bulgogi tacos but otherwise no better off than her mythical counterpart.

That’s why the best strategy in Austin is a more focused approach. You can’t see and do everything, but you do have the opportunity to do a deep dive in a key subject of interest. For me, that means immersing myself in the burgeoning world of virtual reality.

I know – you’ve heard this before. Virtual reality, for more than a generation, has been the shared dream of enthusiasts from MIT professors to video game publishers to NASA scientists, and you don’t need to be old enough to remember Nintendo’s Virtual Boy to know that the industry’s attempts at breaking through to the mainstream have not gone as hoped. Yet recent developments in both technology and investment suggest it may finally be poised for its big moment – that virtual reality could, at long last, become reality.

Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR last March was one of several notable investments in the space last year, along with the Google-led $542 million financing round in Magic Leap, the secretive maker of an augmented reality device (as the term suggests, augmented reality involves the blending of real and virtual images, as opposed to a world that is entirely virtual). Google also launched its decidedly low-tech headset Cardboard, while Samsung offers its higher-end Gear VR. With this new investment in headgear, content companies like VRSE and Jaunt are stepping in to fill the gap and deliver the new, immersive storytelling experiences that are increasingly in demand.

The lineup at SXSW reflects this renewed enthusiasm. There are more than a dozen events on the program dedicated explicitly to VR, with plenty more certain to touch on the subject. Among those I’ve bookmarked is Virtual Reality: Video Reinvented, featuring the NBA’s Jeffrey Marsilio, Samsung’s Matt Apfel and the innovative producer Nancy Bennett.

During my time as a producer at NBC Sports, I saw the emergence of other new formats, but none of them proved game-changing; consumer ambivalence has held back 3D sports production, and while a shift to 4K is underway, it offers only an incremental, not fundamental, difference. Virtual reality is something else entirely. It presents not a sharper or more realistic viewing experience but a collaborative one – an opportunity to go beyond passive voyeurism and actively participate in the scenes we see and hear.

At this point, there are far more questions than answers. What will people want to view in virtual reality? Games? Movies? Live events like concerts and sports? Or news coverage of protests, like Vice’s production of the Millions March in New York in December? Will they want to experience it at home or a theater? Alone or in groups? Will there be a social network for this new world? (Maybe.) How might it change industries outside of media, like retail? And how will our networks and hard drives keep up with all that data?

The beauty of SXSW is that it’s filled with the very people who are asking those same questions about the future of virtual reality. And with so much to explore in Austin in just this subject alone, why spread yourself too thin?

Alex Goldberger is a first-year MBA student at Columbia Business School and an InSITE Fellow. Prior to CBS, he worked as a writer and feature producer at NBC Sports.

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