Virtual reality, it seems, is finally going to have its moment. Even those fairly removed from the tech world are likely to have heard or seen some of the hype being built. This year alone there have been major marketing campaigns for HTC Vive, Samsung Gear, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR. This is alongside previous products such as Google Cardboard. It’s worth mentioning that Sony’s PlayStation VR has, ahead of launch, already sold out twice – despite a somewhat average games library. This has lead many brands and marketing teams to jump on VR as a way to create unusual and innovative campaigns - but should we be so hasty?
The challenges are numerous for VR – particularly if it doesn’t want to go the way of 3D TVs. There’s a marketing challenge – the simple fact that VR looks a bit naff unless you’ve actually managed to try one. Many people who have got their hands on one now swear by it as a technology, but it’s an experience that is impossible to represent on a billboard or television advert.
There’s a human challenge – VR is an intense and immersive experience. Developers have in many cases only developed mini-games as a way to help the human mind start adapting to what can initially be uncomfortable or even nauseous. Horror games in VR are proving too intense even for some of the most seasoned gamers.
There’s a development challenge – developers have to rethink sound design, peripheral vision, balance, and controls. They have to push technology further to render larger areas onto a headset.
But, perhaps the biggest challenge is the one least talked about. The forthcoming tirade of negative media attention that brings into question the morality and ethical nature of the technology in the first place.
To fully explain, I think it’s important to understand the history that the press and public have had with video games. Once video games started to become closer to reality, instead of small moving squares on a screen. In the 1990s and 2000s there were a spate of incidents which were linked to video games. A series of murders and shootings were connected with video games like Mortal Kombat or GoldenEye. There was never any proof that there video game obsession was anything other than a symptom, rather than a cause.
The peak of this was the Jack Thompson/Rockstar affair. Jack Thompson was an extremely outspoken attorney who knew how to get press attention – he would regularly appear on US TV networks claiming that video games were training children to kill.
This was particularly notable in 2005, when Thompson wrote in a letter that he would donate $10,000 to charity if a video game company would develop a game where a main character went on a killing spree against video game developers. His theory was that developers would be too fearful that they would be training gamers to kill them that they wouldn’t dare create it.
Alas, developers are a hardy bunch, and pretty quickly the game was developed and released – “I'm O.K – A Murder Simulator”. Thompson, however, refused to donate the money promised.
Nevertheless, Thompson continued to file countless lawsuits and, while most were dismissed outright, he was a thorn in the side of the industry for many years.
It’s important to note, despite the fact that Thompson was eventually barred, he was a symptom of a wider concern amongst the public. He was representative of a real fear that many people had – and regardless of the accuracy of that fear, it still existed.
Interestingly, research is still mixed on the relation between video games and violence. There are some papers that suggest it can increase aggression, while also indicating that video games may have actually caused a decline in real crime stats.
It is unfortunate to say, but a very likely possibility, that at some point a shooting will happen, and one of the main findings will be that the culprit was an obsessive VR user. The media may then choose to focus on this as a cause – stating that the shooter was “living in a dream world”. And, with a name like “Virtual Reality”, it’s a difficult one to argue.
The problem is that many of the developers now working on VR are too new to have properly been involved in the previous era of legal concern. Therefore, many perhaps don’t necessarily understand or appreciate the impact this had: years of court battles, boycotts and bans in certain stores around the world, unbelievable levels of negative press.
But this doesn’t mean that concern about virtual reality isn’t a legitimate concern. The fact is that there just isn’t enough research to suggest either way quite yet. Instead of resting on their laurels developers should instead be researching the impact themselves – and understand, if there is a concern about serious mental suggestion, then how to solve it.
There have been countless fictional works, such as Sword Art Online or even Red Dwarf, which have used virtual reality as a negative plot device. The public may be excited about VR for the moment, but just like every new technology, there will be questions and concerns.
Marketers are continually told to innovate and experiment, and this is completely right, but it's also essential to keep track of the wider perception of the methods you are using. If VR's reputation does get dragged down marketers need to make sure their brands don't get damaged along with it.
Either way though, developers, and the industry, should prepare for scrutiny on a whole new level – if it goes the wrong way VR may die before it even has its moment.