How mixed reality becomes a news media actuality 

Future News 92

The Ford Model T of VR headsets, the Oculus Quest 2, is highly rated (five out of five stars on Amazon from more than 4,000 accounts) but not yet hugely bought. Facebook has been coy about its actual sales figures, noting in the company’s Q4 2020 earnings release in January that it drove non-advertising sales by 156% in the three months to 31 December 2020

Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that the $299 hardware launched last October is “on track to be the first mainstream” VR headset. It’s unclear what the Facebook founder and CEO considers to be “mainstream”. 

But based on those comments and figures, which suggest the Oculus Quest 2 hit more than one million unit sales in Q4 2020, some analysts expect sales to hit three million by the end of this year. Its peers and competitors, namely PlayStation VR and Valve Index, are lagging far behind

This quick rate of adoption during the pandemic, when consumers are stuck at home with more disposable income than ever, should spark the interest of newsrooms. VR, as Zuckerberg noted, isn’t just about fighting zombies or virtual bowling. It has serious storytelling potential: 

“We're seeing people use it to play games with friends when they can't be together in person, to do workouts in their living room, or to meet with colleagues while working from home. There are a lot of reasons Quest 2 was one of the hot holiday gifts this year,” the Facebook boss has said.

As is the case with most games/experience-based hardware, it will rise and fall thanks to the allure and quality of its content. The good news for Oculus is that it has a growing community of developers, currently at 60-strong. National Geographic is one media outlet that has gotten in early with its exploration-based content.

The interactive and immersive nature of the platform could have a profound impact on journalism. The New York Times is one of the main outlets that had an early stab at it, as seen below.

Imagine running alongside star sprinters at the Olympics live, witnessing what modern warfare really looks like or being sent back in time to help solve crime mysteries (no doubt the podcast community can help here). The tourism industry, in particular, will benefit from try-before-you-buy experiences. 

But we are still far off mass adoption, people don’t necessarily like putting lunchboxes on their face, as Visualise CEO Henry Stuart put it, and the technology is inherently isolating and discombobulating. We also have built up a habit of multi-screening, something that current VR hardware doesn’t allow. News media companies should therefore marshal their resources, efforts and ambitions accordingly. 

To become more than a gimmick, it will have to become useful, such as an AR smart glasses overlay providing actionable information (the price of goods/ location data) and become social to have a network effect (another Second Life won’t cut it).

As is the case with the rise of Zoom, the user experience will have to be as frictionless and intuitive as possible. We’ve now had multi-generations of video gamers, so there shouldn’t be too much resistance there, but a piece of breakout content (like Serial’s impact on podcasts) will be needed to drive adoption. It doesn’t, in other words, pass the whisper test: ‘have you heard about X?’. 

With vaccines now being rolled out and a return to some normality expected around April and onwards, the VR developers can take advantage of one big B2C macro trend from the established video games industry – there are no firm dates on the release of the next so-called triple A/blockbuster game. The film industry has also delayed big titles for cinematic release, most notably the next instalment of James Band

Though, perhaps AR/mixed reality (something Facebook and Apple are working on) could be an essential gateway for VR? Imagine it like a motorcycle helmet visor – with it up you have some additional information, but with it down you’re in full VR mode and the hardware provides work and social/personal use. Facebook is certainly looking at AR as well:

“Augmented reality glasses are going to be a key part of this vision too. We're still working on some of the foundational technology to underpin these -- and the ultimate product is still some years away. But this year we're excited to deliver a first glimpse of what will be when we launch our first pair of smart glasses from Ray-Ban, in partnership with Luxottica,” Zuckerberg has said.

Perhaps then this technology knocking around since the 1980s will get a mass adoption breakthrough. 

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Image: Future News, “TV Error" by Sibe Kokke is licensed under CC BY 2.0