I want to take you back to several years ago, before VR was on the cover of Time, before the New York Times sent out Google Cardboards, before Facebook got in the game.
This was a time when VR did not live strongly in the popular consciousness, it lived in the developer and tech industry consciousness, tucked away in secret labs in far-flung corners of the world or in fleeting whispers in hallways between people privileged enough to know it well. It lived in language like custom display optics system and low latency, in words like "presence" and "immersion" parroting back and forth as the vague holy words that mean you "feel like you’re there."
I want to take you in a dark corner of an office where myself and a handful of developers were getting together a group of unsuspecting VR virgins to try it for the first time. We were operating below the radar, as VR was definitely not seen as a priority yet. We were doing this to get a perspective on VR defined "by the people," earlier than the process dictated or people thought we should.
Even though each person tried very early demos, all of them had a mind-blowing realization—this technology harnesses a profound sensory power.
Feelings of extraordinary fear, discovery, speed, or control pushed them into a visceral, physiological world of new emotions they had never experienced before—valuable because the real world doesn’t provide them in this experimental, playful way. Getting access to new emotions in a VR world was one of its most jaw-dropping, most relatable, most human benefits. In that little dark room, what we were part of was an extreme-human experience trapped inside a world of extreme tech, wanting to bust out.
Now, we are on the verge of these headsets making their transition to the hands of the people for the first time. This has been the stuff of myth for decades. But it is also something more. What all the price announcements and tech specs and investment deals that make headlines of late have still missed out on is moving the conversation from the leap in technology to the leap in humanity. Of course that was our objective in our little experiment, to speed up the tech-to-human transition.
As a Strategy Director at BBH New York I’m helping to lead the strategic thinking behind PlayStation’s PSVR headset. This project has converted me to an early evangelist of VR in general, but also an early seeker of the human side of this conversation. In our business, it’s often our job to translate between the world of tech and the world of humanity and each opportunity is different.
As this technology fights it’s way out of the darkness and into the light, and the haters and naysayers come out one by one to take swipes at this extraordinary new technology, there are a few ideas to keep in mind, that can help shepherd VR into our lives with optimism and a bit more humanity:
The term virtual reality may be misleading. No experience or game developed for VR is real, they are all manufactured. Arguably, some of the most impactful experiences allow you to do, see, and feel things you’d never be able to do in real life.
In real estate it’s not looking at an actual apartment that is in London that you don’t have to fly to that is most exciting—what’s mind-bending is touring an apartment that doesn’t even exist yet, and buying that apartment before it’s built.
In sports, sitting courtside in VR is going to be incredible, but sitting in the middle of the court will be something humans have never been able to feel before, and that will be extraordinary.
Going to visit a place in the world in VR that you could actually visit, but not having to leave your house will be revolutionary—but going to a place that doesn’t exist in real life like a game world or that you can’t get to like Mars (for now) will expand our human experience, and so on.
The technology doesn’t decide our reality, we do.
This early in the lifecycle of a technology that is so emotionally powerful, we should be careful when implying a constantly blurred line between virtual and real worlds. If people believe virtual reality always affects reality or replaces it, it can create a culture of fear—an idea of living in two equal worlds we can’t control or distinguish ourselves.
For example, in a Time article recently, there was an assertion about the effect that an entertainment experience in VR would have on real life: "If Jaws felt like what you just did in my lab (in VR), no one would go in the ocean again." If I experience Jaws in VR shot on Martha’s Vineyard in a town called Menemsha in VR and then I go to Menemsha in real life, I’m pretty sure I’m still going to eat a lobster roll at sunset and jump in the ocean.
Of course, some VR experiences will affect reality. Very clear examples include doctors being able to practice surgery in VR and apply that to healing real patients more successfully, or athletes being able to practice in VR to ease the pain on their bodies but still build valuable skills for the real game, but this is not an ultimate rule of the tech.
As we sit with a headset on, although our experiences will seem believable—this is different than them being "real." When we take it off we should feel empowered to identify what is entertainment and what directly translates to the real world.
In a world that often lacks the ability to play, the intuitive behavior that it takes to participate in VR makes these experiences easy for everyone to have. You don’t have to learn complex controls or patterns to ‘play’, you basically have to be a human and act human. That is why businesses and schools and institutions are finding VR to be so valuable and meaningful. It’s giving otherwise less, playful, less emotional categories a sense of aspiration and feeling that they haven’t had access to before and encouraging them to make more fundamentally human, engaging experiences than ever.
In our world today, VR will be a force in tech and for humanity. It can be a fundamentally positive experience, expanding our emotional experiences and understanding. These intuitive, progressive experiences are what make virtual reality the most powerful medium of our time.
Two years after our dark-back-room experiment, high-quality VR headsets that cause these incredible experiences are about to launch brightly into our lives. The earlier we perpetuate among ourselves the positive emotional impact VR can have on humankind, the more fluent, and ready for it we will be. There is a golden truth about tech, that the potential of technology is not realized until it is in our hands. Some of the most incredible uses occur in the fabric of life, in surprising ways we can’t plan for. We are excited to see what you do.