Oculus VR Will Not Transform Movies Like Colour And HD Did

The prognosis on VR films ranges from ‘obviously transformational, like colour’ to ‘a small niche’. The truth lies somewhere on this broad spectrum, but where?

Oculus VR has come a long way in a short time: having first raised $2.4 million via a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the company then raised an additional $91 million in two venture funding rounds during 2013 before being acquired by Facebook in March 2014 in a cash + stock deal, which at the time was valued at $2 billion. Hurrah to the Oculus VR team!

The virtual reality (VR) technology that is being developed by Oculus aims to trick the brain into believing it is somewhere else. This is achieved by stimulating the perceptual system (mainly hearing and vision) to a sufficient extent that the user experiences and engages with another form of reality - a virtual reality.

There is no doubt that the right kind of visual stimulation can distort the brain’s perception of reality (see here and here for some remarkable demonstrations of this effect) and there is also no doubt that VR technology will find a ready market in some verticals, such as gaming.

In this article I want to take a look at one of the potential market applications for VR technology – which is film. On 27 January 2015 Oculus announced a VR film making project, Oculus Story Studio. The project’s first production was a 4-minute experience in a moonlit forest inhabited by an unexpected creature.

Some people believe that Oculus Story Studio represents the future of film making: the thinking here is that VR is so stunning, so immersive and so compelling that it will eventually be adopted like prior technical innovations, such as sound, colour and HD, for instance. 

But other people see VR films as a niche. 

That’s a pretty wide spectrum of opinion: all we can really say based on this right now is that Story Studio might be anything from a massive success to a total flop. Where on this wide spectrum does Oculus Story Studio really sit?

We can glean some interesting insight if we look at the question more structured way. 

Change is only sustainable if the benefits exceed the costs, for everyone

There’s a definite relationship between the degree of change that is required to adopt an innovation and the incremental value that will harvested. This leads to three criteria which can be used to assess the potential of different technological innovations:

  • Strong adoption: The more obvious the net benefits are to early adopters the faster adoption will occur. As an example, early adopters could immediately understand the benefits of using contact lenses whereas the true benefits of smart glasses remain unclear even to tech-savvy users.
  • Sustainable usage: The larger the net benefit the more likely the innovation is to be adopted on a sustainable basis. Sustainable usage is reached when the innovation has become part of everyday, routine behaviour. As an example, while a PC-based dictation tool might be strongly adopted it will only be used on a sustainable basis if it has sufficient accuracy and does not interfere with the operation of other user applications. Another way of looking at this is to say that in order for the innovation to proceed to the ‘sustainable usage’ stage it needs to pass through an initial novelty phase an into a phase where users derive tangible net benefits.
  • Generic appeal: The more generic the net benefit, the larger the market. An innovation like mobile phones applies to everyone whereas professional photo-editing software only applies to a small market.

The next important point is that these three metrics are applicable at two different levels:

  • Consumer attractiveness: How end users perceive the net benefits
  • Industry attractiveness: How the industry perceives the net benefits

How do VR Films measure up?

We can use the above framework to compare VR films with prior technical innovations in film making by assigning pseudo-quantitative scores to the first three criteria for both consumer and industry attractiveness:

The scoring used in this table is based on the following rationale:

  • Sound and Colour must score 5 on all counts because they have been adopted by all users and by the whole film-making industry. Hence, it is not possible to score higher than these two innovations.
  • For consumer attractiveness, HD has not been as widely adopted as colour as there are remain some structural barriers to delivery (e.g. bandwidth, cost).
  • Mainly because 3D requires the user to wear special glasses this technology it has not been as strongly adopted by consumers as HD.
  • For the industry, 3D is not equally applicable to all movie genres or even titles and so 3D scores lower than HD on generic appeal and strength of adoption.
  • VR scores generally lower than 3D on all metrics because the user not only has to wear an expensive headset but the usage of that headset in a group setting highlights the user even more than the usage of 3D glasses.
  • Shooting a movie in a VR format would be more complex than HD because rather just requiring a stereoscopic camera, the film producer would need to think in terms of immersive ‘real world’ film sets, virtual reality CGI tools and new post-production workflow which would require a major change in creative behaviour.
  • The entire film making industry operates on the assumption that the users engage with the movie via a 2D planar rendition. Changing this assumption would have profound implications for how film makers practise their art, in return for benefits that are not generic. 

The bottom line for me is that VR films definitely do not have the same potential as sound, colour, HD and probably not even 3D. One has to look at least a decade into the future to envisage a technological execution of VR film that is so immersive and so easy to use that it has true generic appeal. But until then, VR films will be limited to a niche market which is likely to be far smaller than 3D.