If you haven’t heard, virtual reality is finally happening. Like, for real this time. And everyone wants a piece of the action: CNN, NBA, Sports Illustrated, Showtime Boxing, and TED to name a few. All of these companies have recently used VR as a marketing ploy, and quite frankly, the “experiences” they’ve created are all a load of shit.
The latest VR stunt, provided by Samsung, is a live stream of a smartphone announcement. Which is great? Now I can finally watch some asshole in a suit stand on stage and opine about how the shiny new phone he’s holding—which looks identical to last year’s model, by the way—will change the world forever.
Why on earth would anyone ever want to watch something like that in virtual reality? It’s beyond me. The only real explanation is that corporations are preying on the excitement surrounding VR in order to shill products that simply don’t belong in virtual reality.
And sadly, there are too many to count at this point. Remember last fall when CNN streamed a debate over Gear VR? Of course you don’t, because no one bothered to watch it. Virtual reality didn’t help or enhance the debate in any way. The few people that did watch the debate in VR didn’t come away anymore informed than the rest of the general public. In fact, it probably distracted them from absorbing the really important information.
The new Samsung VR stunt follows what’s becoming a long tradition of abhorrent marketing gimmicks using virtual reality to attract attention from the ever-important millennial demographic. Even dusty old Sports Illustrated couldn’t resist the urge. Instead of doing something cool with sports, it made a gross 360-degree video to market its swimsuit issue.
Sure. Someday, we might be able to strap on dorky headsets and transport ourselves to a place we could never visit. It might feel like sitting in the front row of a basketball game, or being on stage of a major product announcement, or standing beside presidential candidates during the debates. But right now, we couldn’t be farther from that reality.
There’s still a major technology issue. As you look around, Everything is slightly bowed. It’s not like viewing things through a normal set of eyes. Part of that is a video stitching problem: When virtual reality videos are made, they typically take two (or more) flat videos and shape them into a sphere. It’s a lot like taking a flat world map and stretching it around a globe. It’s generally pretty accurate, but things are still slightly askew.
That’s a shame, because companies like Oculus have actually created some really compelling virtual reality experiences using 3D modeling software. Rather than propping up a 360-degree camera on stage during a live event, Oculus has spent years developing huge, immersive games that seem like they’ll incredible when finally released. But that’s also super expensive and time-consuming to develop. So for now, companies are just sticking to the easiest (and crappiest) solution.
The 360-degree video hack probably not going away anytime soon, either. The companies using VR as a marketing tool are often using low-grade cameras to test the possibilities. They’re going through the motions to try to get some headlines, but the end experience doesn’t deliver. In the most practical sense, I couldn’t think of anything less immersive than watching a 360-degree live stream of an event.
Let me put it this way: It often feels like I’m watching a forgotten webcam that’s been tacked onto a wall near something that actually matters. On top of that, watching VR marketing campaigns is actually way worse than watching a normal video in HD due to the quality issues.
If virtual reality is going to be something that everyone uses, we first need to come to terms with the fact that not everything deserves to have a VR experience, especially in the technology’s infancy. And if every company on the planet is going to have a VR marketing campaign, I hope they eventually come to the realization that if it’s not making the experience even better than it already was, it shouldn’t exist in the first place.
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