"Through some quirk of evolution, we have a natural compulsion to share stories, even if we have to create imaginary tales that never happened. But even in our imaginary tales, realism is something we place tremendous value on." -Scott Lehane
When I was starting up VRNation.tv, several trusted friends in the traditional media industry warned me that it might just be a fad, and that I could get burned in the end. They compared it to 3DTV, which had a lot of hype, but ultimately went nowhere. They cited Jaunt and Google Spotlight Stories and some of the other “bleeding edge” early pioneers that had gone bust in the VR business, suggesting there was no viable business model.
I always take advice to heart, and I spent many hours agonizing about it, following the news, reading research analyst reports and checking out some of the stuff that’s already out there in VR.
In the end, I am completely convinced that VR, and its cousins AR and MR, will be very different from 3DTV, partly because the various technologies required to make it viable have evolved and coalesced to the point where it's now quite feasible, including high-resolution displays with high frame rates, as well as advances in bandwidth, processing power, GPS tracking, 360 degree cameras and computers capable of processing that much data. All of the component technologies are now commonplace, and well within the budget of the average person.
I see 3DTV as a stepping stone that got us to VR, just as quadrophonic sound was a stepping stone to Surround Sound, and LaserDisc was a stepping stone to CD and DVD.
But also, there's a much bigger picture here.
Through some quirk of evolution, we have a natural compulsion to share stories, even if we have to create imaginary tales that never happened. But even in our imaginary tales, realism is something we place tremendous value on. We’ve been pursuing and perfecting it for a very long time. It helps sell the story to the audience and make it more believable.
Roughly 17,000 years ago, a group of cavemen (and women) in Southwestern France started painting murals on the walls of their caves. Over the course of many generations, they painted over 600 cave paintings. These paintings told the stories of some of their most epic hunting expeditions and some of their greatest heroes. They were almost certainly accompanied by stories, passed down orally, that have long been lost, but the viewer can still grasp what they were trying to portray.
We can read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and imagine what it was like in the Pharaoh's court, but the pictures aren’t very realistic. We understand that an image represents a person, but it has no depth or detail. In fact, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that we discovered the idea of a “vanishing point” which enabled us to paint images with an early type of 3D realism.
Meanwhile, from the ancient Greek amphitheaters to the Shakespearean Globe Theatre, we’ve always had to “suspend our disbelief” and use our imagination to fill in the blanks. (Ok, that’s supposed to be a Minotaur… Ok, I’m in a castle in Denmark and that Hamlet guy is the prince...)
We’ve even gone to the extremes of the Roman Colosseum where real people fought and died for the entertainment of the masses.
When film came along, early filmmakers tried putting a static camera in front of a traditional stage and acting out Shakespearean plays in one long take. But it wasn’t long before they learned how to move the camera – pan, tilt, zoom, truck, dolly, etc. – and, more importantly, cut the footage. People loved it because it required less suspension of disbelief and came closer to reality. Then came color film and color TV which brought us a good bit closer. Then came high-definition TV with its crystal-clear picture and surround sound, which brought us even closer, each step requiring less and less suspension of disbelief.
While we love to use our imagination, suspension of disbelief is something we’ve just had to tolerate all along, just like a 1990s’ internet user had to tolerate dial-up Internet speeds, knowing that it wouldn’t always be this way. But now, with VR we don’t have to do that anymore. Now we can be fully immersed and actually trick our senses into believing it’s all real.
If we ever met an alien species without this same compulsion to invent stories, it would very difficult to explain why we place such value on entertainment, but we do. If you look at film, television, music and video games, you have to admit that these aren’t things we need; They’re things we want and crave. There’s just something deep in our psyche that wants to create more and more realistic stories to the point where someday, we could conceivably play God in our own AI-driven, VR creations. And that future is now within grasp.
Therefore, I believe virtual reality is inevitable.
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist and editor who has been covering the film, TV and media industry for almost 30 years. Over the years, he has written thousands of articles for dozens of publications. Earlier this summer, he launched www.VRNation.tv – an online resource for VR, AR and MR enthusiasts that offers 23 channels of curated VR content along with a guide for upcoming live VR broadcasts, as well as news, a social community and a special section for 360-degree still photographers to share their work.