Why VR Matters

An array of hammers strike taut metal wires. A series of sounds are emitted that are unusually pleasing. The audience bursts into rapturous applause as the last of the notes decay into silence.

I’ve described, in somewhat mechanical terms the live performance of one of Chopin’s Etudes. If you’d never heard piano played before, never mind so exquisitely, no amount of words could prepare you for the artistry and emotional power conveyed by a live performance. Similarly, the biggest problem faced by VR proponents is conveying what it feels like to enjoy a finely tuned experience inside a Rift, Vive or PSVR head-mounted display. The only way for you to know what a beautiful instrument sounds like when played by a virtuoso is to experience it for yourself. The only way for you to make any judgment about VR is to put on a headset and experience something. I would hope that you would get to experience something crafted by someone who is really skilful with the medium, otherwise it’s going to be more painful than listening to a tyro bashing on a badly tuned piano while drunk.

Have you ever had a vivid dream? One that is so powerful that you can almost reach out and touch it when you wake up before its gossamer-like threads dissolve and reality barges in coldly? Or perhaps you’re one of those rare individuals who is capable of lucid dreaming? Well VR gives each and every one of those willing to don a VR headset that rare ability to lucid dream, to be in any reality we choose, and to fashion it while conscious.

For this fashioning to work, the experience will have to be “composed” if you will, by someone who understands the medium, or at the very least, respects it. It will be some considerable time before this new medium yields a language, a grammar, a set of conventions and best practices. Right know, it’s all up for grabs, it’s a precious time, pregnant with enormous potential.

The early days of a medium are often filled with naked attempts to translate old media to the new, some might call this skeuomorphism of sorts, perhaps there is a better word for it. Early TV shows were just radio shows with a camera, for example, but look at some of the best TV shows today and you’ll see just how far we’ve come.

We won’t know what VR is capable of until the old paradigms are shed and a new form, butterfly-like, totally at home in VR and importantly, impossible anywhere else emerges in all its impactful glory.

Video games have traditionally sacrificed emotional nuance for intensity. There is a danger that VR could host even greater emotional coarseness, with porn, horror and violence being given a unique and highly intimate platform in which to launch their assault on the senses of those after such extremes of experience. Without wishing to judge such content, my hope is that a new medium gives us as an industry the rare opportunity of introducing more nuance, more artistry, a more graduated emotional palette that could enrich and enlarge our lives in a way that has not been possible thus far. Novels after all, have yielded Jilly Cooper, but also Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One of the reasons I left PlayStation was because I recognised this time as pivotal. I couldn’t stand by and not at least attempt to help shape the new medium in some way with my own limited contribution. If you knew there was going to be a total solar eclipse in your neighbourhood, a once in a lifetime opportunity, wouldn’t you at least try to take the day off work to witness it?

Chances like these just don’t come along often. There are some observers who suggest that VR could be the last medium. In its current form, that’s obviously risible, but this is just the beginning. I was there at the dawn of the video games industry in the early ’80s and yet this period feels even more exciting, even more groundbreaking and those of us lucky enough to be able to help define the early days have a huge burden of responsibility to future generations, not just of developers, but of players too. Will we choose the easy route or will we go for the harder, but ultimately more rewarding and enriching route?

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