IS THERE ANY REAL RETURN ON VIRTUAL REALITY?
Economies of scale essential when it comes to monetising content. Only when audiences reach the hundreds-of-thousands can the cost of production for newspapers, magazines, music or movies be justified. Even YouTubers need to reach seven-figure audiences just to turn a meagre profit. But, what happens when content consumption goes from mass market to personalised? Will audiences pay top dollar for custom content as opposed to off-the-rack or will brands foot the bill for depth of engagement over breadth?
Sometime ago I sat through an inspirational presentation about interactive documentaries; a combination of film, photography and written content all coded into one immersive online experience. The effect was spellbinding but there were five of us being presented to and we all responded to different aspects. This gave rise to some great discussion but a complex viewing experience. I wanted to go down one interactive path and each of my colleagues wanted to go down a different one. This pleased the presenter greatly, proving his point that content personalisation is the new frontier but, in this context, I found it a barrier to enjoying a shared experience.
VR or Virtual Reality seems to pose a similar problem. Call me old fashioned but I still think one of the best date nights you can have is a dinner and a movie. But does it count as a date night if we’re plugged into separate VR modules to experience personalised versions of the same movie? VR, like interactive, is another form of personalised content that delivers a different experience depending on when and where you look. It is also hampered by hardware; everyone needs their own pair of goggles, which again leads me to wonder about it’s scalability and commercial application. Having seen 3DTV come and go without a trace I can’t help thinking VR is headed the same way. It will be a gimmick used by brands in the short term and maybe gamers in the long term, but for the rest of us it’s all just a bit too much effort.
Speaking of effort, the other issue that concerns me about interactive and VR content is the amount of active effort required from the viewer to enjoy it. I don’t know about you but I’m married with a young child and run my own business – on the rare occasion I actually get to relax with a book or film I don’t want the burden of choice or the effort of participation, I just want someone to tell me a great story from beginning to end whilst I munch on popcorn and drink beer. Munching popcorn and drinking beer is something I can enjoy alone, with friends or even with strangers in a cinema, which can seat a couple of hundred people at $10 a ticket thereby generating enough money to compensate the theatre owners, distributors and producers. Can interactive or VR content scale as easily and generate enough cash to fund the ecosystem required? Right now I doubt it because a personalised experience is bound to cost more and yet advertising revenues are dropping and audiences and are paying less for content. You can argue that a personalised experience has more value but is that enough?
I’m certainly not anti-innovation but I do wonder about the amount of time, money and attention that gets poured into the “next big thing” without any real consideration as to its viability as a business. We've all seen tech startups exhaust their funding and fail because, despite the hype, they never had a business model to start with. Before we all jump on the interactive and/or VR bandwagon we should consider that very carefully.
Below are some links to interactive projects, have a play and let me know your thoughts:
http://pinepoint.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint (early example, requires Flash)