Recently I went to an Advertising Week panel featuring the lead singer of One Republic, Ryan Tedder, as well as directors, marketers and experts in the VR space. They were discussing the use of VR in creating content while simultaneously releasing the bands new video, “Kids” on Nokia’s VR platform, Ozo. You can watch the video on a proper VR headset (ranging from about $100 to $800), or use a Google Cardboard adapter (or equivalent) and your smartphone. CNET gives a relatively simple overview of VR and where it stands now. I personally have never been a fan of One Republic and would barely call them a band when I’m in my more cynical moods, but hearing about the amazing things that can be done with this technology and experiencing the video itself, it definitely upped my respect for these guys.
I played with a friend of a friend’s Oculus about two or so years ago, but otherwise have had little exposure to virtual reality (as long as you don’t count the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios). I have to say, the experience was incredible. Everyone says that the best way to understand VR is to experience it first hand and I definitely would agree.
The video is a fairly simple concept, shot in Mexico City, and showing a boy and girl each in separate second floor apartments across the street from each other, with the street below having a block party culminating featuring the band who eventually go on stage to play with the music. Essentially the story of the video goes back and forth between the apartments showing the guy trying to communicate with their else while hovering over the party on the street. It took me a second to realize you can look around anywhere and see the video happening. I honestly forgot I was standing outside the lobby of a conference room and thought I was there (note this with the Ozo viewer and noise canceling headphones, the experience on a cell phone with cardboard is vastly different). The music video story was fairly simple but the idea expanded immensely with VR. But while watching (or maybe “experiencing” is now the more appropriate term), I immediately understood the potential this medium has and how it will grow over the next few years, which has been a large theme overall at the conference.
VR reminds me a bit of Sleep No More, the real time, live action, immersive performance at McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, in the sense that each time you view the performance, you can experience and see different things. Sleep No More is a multi-floor building where there are things happening simultaneously at every corner, and it’s impossible to see everything. VR is similar in how you can move your head around and decide who or what you want to look at throughout the experience. You can watch it over and over and see something different each time, almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I can only imagine what it will advance to when you can actually walk around an environment or arena, touch and pick up things, maybe even fly around the world or go on a roller coaster. The potential here really seems infinite.
One of the large advantages (or potential drawbacks) of the medium is the idea of experiencing a live 360 view of a concert while sitting at home. Imagine seeing the sold out Adele show at Madison Square Garden live without having to go to the venue itself (and ideally less expensive but this is still very early in development). Or being able to go see backstage before and after the show. OR attending the annual Glastonbury Festival in England without having to travel there and camp out for 5 days. The possibilities seem limitless and again, after experiencing this myself, I definitely had a flashback to Neo in the Matrix. The fear, however, is that people will favor convenience over real life experience, as people often do. It’s one thing to experience something that you couldn’t otherwise get to or afford, but it’s another to rather sit home and on the couch watching your favorite band because you’re too lazy to leave your house. There’s a fine line here, as often is the case with any new technology, and since already this technology is very advanced, it will only get better. But I’m not too worried about it at this point, fans will also want to see their favorite artists in the actual flesh, at least I would hope. As amazing as the experience is and potentially could be in the future, it’s still “The Matrix” and won’t ever be the same as singing/screaming along to your favorite band with your friends. Just like concert-goers need to get off their phones and enjoy the moment rather than telling everyone else how much they are enjoying the moment, they need to physically make the effort to go out and see that particular concert.