AV Avenger: Virtual insanity

Although Virtual Reality presents intriguing possibilities, Steve May says there's no place for a face-hugging headset in his home cinema

Virtual Reality makes me sick. No, it really does. I've donned VR goggles more than once, and more than once I've ended up looking for a brown bag afterward. There's something about the disorientating sense of motion and the sensory deprivation of VR that snafus my equilibrium. I reckon I'm not alone in this. Yet this hasn't prevented VR being hailed as The Next Big Thing.

Indeed, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) predicts VR headset sales in 2016 will create a market worth $540 million. If you've been waiting for the next 3D fad, here it comes.

And VR has a lot of similarities with 3D. It's cyclical for one thing. I first experienced VR back in the 1980s. Back then, headsets immersed you into a crude polygon world where virtual hands floated in front of your face. The games industry then became excited – Mattel made the Power Glove controller for the NES, while Sega touted a VR headset for the Mega Drive – but ultimately no one cared.

When 3D made its last big push, exponents like James Cameron blustered how wearing 3D glasses would be the new normal. Even the daily news would be broadcast in 3D, we were told. Today's VR evangelists are promising similar ubiquity. Samsung suggests we'll be wearing Gear VR goggles when we dine out, so our meal appears to be served underwater, or in the Coliseum circa 70AD. There are VR apps to watch Vimeo and Twitch, because just watching Vimeo or Twitch is no longer enough. Netflix has even developed a VR app, so that we can watch a Netflix screen in a virtual room, in our actual room. Or on the moon. This is obviously all idiotic. 

Glasses, schmasses

This isn’t to say I'm not keen to see how VR pans out. I just think it's got zero mass-market appeal. The fact is no one likes to wear glasses, unless they actually need them to see – and even then, not so much.

But novelty value alone will ensure early sales. Heck, I'll probably pre-order goggles. I'm a sucker for any video games hardware, so PlayStation VR is inevitable. Also inevitably, they’ll end up gathering dust alongside my PlayStation Camera, Wii U and 3D glasses.

While it’s easy to predict that VR is destined for a gaming niche, it's intriguing to wonder what other creatives will do with the VR toolbox, given the all-too-real loot currently being thrown their way. As mentioned in my CES show report, TV broadcasters are keen to join in. According to a joint report from the CTA and the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE), the technology 'is likely a game-changer.' Speculating where it could go beyond gaming, they identify horror as the next strongest genre. It's easy to imagine a VR extension of The Walking Dead, but it could well be just too damn scary to play. 

Is music a more likely VR bedfellow? Metal band Megadeth has done a live 360-degree VR shoot to support its Dystopia album. You can get on stage with the band and run virtual fingers through Dave Mustaine's locks. One Direction are probably planning something similar. Smartphone makers will bludgeon each other senseless to own this.

Ultimately, though, I suspect VR is more theme park than home entertainment. Will we all be watching a Star Wars VR remix in 2020? Frankly, I'm more likely to learn Wookie. Call me old-school, but I think claustrophobic eyeware will never rival the experience of a big Ultra HD screen and surround audio. Or a good book.

This column first appeared in HCC 257, February 2016.