This article argues that a shortfall of true VR content, as a consequence of the absence of an apt reference frame, a shortage of essential skills and resources, and the incompatibility of old peripherals, will result in the (second) fall of VR. We’re unable to move into a 3D paradigm. We can’t break loose from the 2D habits that started 40,000 years ago as paintings in a cave. And our love for condensed 2D content – and the ma- jor role the Internet plays – is one of the main reasons why. We’re not yet able to adequately pivot these established standards to fit the needs of VR, which hinders the ability to make VR content that lives up to this medium’s promise.
The first-ever cave paintings date back 40,000 years to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These paintings, mostly depicting animals and human hands, were presumably used as a form of communication. The ‘cave people’ who made these drawings effectively reduced the complexity of the outside world onto a flat rock surface, using dirt and pigment1.
In the 40,000 years since then, people have evolved dramatically. So, too, have their methods for communicating about the real world. Paintings, languages, drawings, photos, movies, and more. Mankind has always been – and is still – trying to optimize the translation of 3D into 2D. However, in 1962, Mort Heilig did the opposite. He attempted to replicate the complexity of the real world in his Sensorama machine2. He used 3D imagery, scent, seat vibrations, stereo sound and wind to immerse users in a different reality.
A few years later, Ivan Sutherland continued in Heilig's footsteps and prototyped the ‘Sword of Damocles’, a Head-Mounted Display that allowed users to gaze into a digital world made from wireframes. From then on, researchers and fanatics turned their collective attention to computer-simulated, 3D environments. One of these fanatics was Jaron Lanier, a key figure in the first rise of VR. He was the first to coin the term ‘Virtual Reality’ in an interview in 1989. For the first time, all virtual projects could exist under a single rubric, and a single definition. From that moment, we understood Virtual Reality to be "three-dimensional realities implemented with stereo viewing goggles and reality gloves3." Lanier was also the first person that managed to bring VR to the attention of the public and press. The movie The Lawnmower Man, released in 1992, marked the start of a time where VR went full steam ahead, with companies like Fakespace, Atari, Nintendo, Philips and IBM all starting to produce cheaper business and in-home VR systems.
Logical steps untakenThe PC and its Graphical User Interface matured, and the next logical step at that time could have been an immersive, computer-generated world. But it wasn't. The next step was the Internet. After 1995, people understood that breaking loose from physical constraints and entering 3D worlds was too ambitious for that time. The Internet, on the other hand, perfectly aligned with the 2D paradigm. It wasn't that VR completely disappeared. People were sharing, consuming, and creating 3D content like never before through the Internet. But that content remained within the boundaries of a computer screen. VR lovers spoke mournfully about the ‘death’ of VR. However, many believed it would make its comeback.
And it did, 20 years later in 2014, when Palmer Luckey decided to launch his Oculus Rift on Kickstarter. The rush on Virtual Reality began again. Now, more than ever, people seem to want VR. The computing power, which was a main reason why VR failed in the 1990s, isn't a problem anymore2. The biggest problem VR faces today is the content. More specifically, the quality of content. We're not used to making content for a medium of such complexity and depth. We communicate by simplifying and consuming within confines of a digital screen. The World Wide Web, apps and email have never existed in actual space. Think about it. What would a 3D email even look like? Of course, many have tried to impose 3D forms onto these digital conventions. But too few have touched upon the true distinctive qualities of VR 4. Are we ready to let go of this 2D paradigm, and finally make the step towards a 3D paradigm?
This article argues that a shortfall of true VR content, as a consequence of the absence of an apt reference frame, a shortage of essential skills and resources, and the incompatibility of old peripherals, will result in the (second) fall of VR. We’re unable to move into a 3D paradigm. We can’t break loose from the 2D habits that started 40,000 years ago as paintings in a cave. And our love for condensed 2D content – and the major role the Internet plays – is one of the main reasons why. This article suggests that we’re not yet able to adequately pivot these established standards to fit the needs of VR, which hinders the ability to make VR content that lives up to this medium’s promise.
"I’m not sure where people think virtual reality is today; it may be where it’s always been: full of promise and a little slow on delivery."
(Myron Krueger, one of the first VR pioneers, 2016)
We are trying so desperately to squeeze VR into systems such as the World Wide Web and apps that have clearly been designed for other purposes.
What would Nintendo do?The amount of VR content is rapidly growing each day. From the local barbershop to the New York Times, consumers are constantly offered some form of VR content. The problem, however, is that 2D content is being dipped in a VR bath and released into the VR-hungry world5. First-timers generally leave a VR experience in awe. After that, the excitement levels seem to drop exponentially. As John Carmack, CTO of Oculus, states: “we need apps that make people come back week after week.” This challenge shouldn't have come as a surprise. Jaron Lanier, founding father of VR, predicted back in 1992 that content would become a major problem for VR. Many experts state that a lot of the experiences that are being rushed out to the market are nauseating and shabby. Even Xbox Executive Phil Spencer agrees, and claims that most of the experiences he has had still "felt like demos and experiments."
To clarify, there are in fact useful applications for VR, but mostly within specific industries like the military, aviation, construction and medicine. But these VR solutions and applications have been around since the beginning of the medium. The real problem lies with all the new content being pushed into the entertainment industry.
John Carmack uses Nintendo as an example. He continuously asks himself the question: "what would Nintendo do?" whenever he loses his way. Looking at Nintendo's product portfolio, one thing stands out: its products vary tremendously. That's because the products have been designed to support the content that is being played on them. "It’s about ‘Content’ not ‘Teraflops’ for us," Regie Fils-Aime, head of Nintendo America stated when they announced the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo’s success lies in the fact that, time after time, they design a new system that extends the experience and forms a synergy between content and the framework that holds it. This goes all the way from the operating system up to the hand-held controller.
This ‘Nintendo-mindset’ is something the VR industry lacks right now. We are trying so desperately to squeeze VR into systems like the World Wide Web and apps. But those have clearly been designed for other purposes. Many VR experts agree that, without 'killer' content, VR won’t be alive much longer6.
Virtual reality ≠ Internet + 3DThe Oxford Dictionary (2007) defines the Internet as: "a global computer network … of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols.” We have always relied on digital 2D communication, and the Internet was built on this 2D content framework7. But in order to communicate, you need language. Language provides the mold. The mold sets the boundaries for the expressions that can be made with it8. In the digital world, this means that content cannot exceed the boundaries of the framework in which it was designed. The World Wide Web, for instance, cannot transcend the framework provided by the Internet. So it only follows logically that Virtual Reality – based completely on 3D content – would experience challenges when applied within the boundaries of the 2D Internet. Thus, a logical but important step to get truly unique VR content is to define "a different framing device (i.e. language) to help describe and understand it9." Using the old doctrines spawned from the Internet and applying them to 3D won't unlock the full potential of VR. How can you expect to break away from conventions by holding on to words and principles that frame these same conventions? We should therefore search for the qualities of VR that make it fundamentally different.
Other industries, like advertising and film, also experience an incompatibility between VR and the old principles from the 2D paradigm. For example, many filmmakers believe in the ‘storytelling’ power of VR10. But is storytelling a unique attribute of VR’s nature? It is not, according to Bryn Mooser, co-founder of RYOT. He explains: "if VR allows you to project yourself onto the deck of the Titanic, I suspect we won’t want the entire James Cameron-style backstory about a dashing artist and his fleeting romance with a wealthy young woman facing an arranged marriage. We’ll just want to experience the sinking of the ship11."
So, if we are to create a 'VR internet', we’ll need to reframe and rename. There are companies, like Mozilla and Web VR, who are trying to make the VR browser. But even using the term 'browser' implies a fixation in the 2D confines of the Internet. Worse still, in a sublevel of the Internet – the browser. Casey Yee, a UX Design Engineer at Mozilla, explains that Mozilla VR (or any VR browser in general) still feels like a demo. We’re far from having a full VR web experience12. Yee also explains that many of the established standards and principles can’t directly be translated into a VR world. For instance, what would the underlined text for hyperlinks, search bars in the top of the browser, or 'slide to unlock' look like in VR? What we know as 'web pages' would need to be changed to 'web spaces'. Examples like these (of which there are many) solely illustrate the problematic transfer of these 2D web principles into virtual environments.
R.I.P. web design
As Oculus states in their Best Practices article (2017): "VR requires new ways of thinking about space, dimension, immersion, interaction and navigation." Web pages, websites and apps are all designed to fit the boundaries of the screen of our various devices, a phenomenon called ‘framing’. In VR, however, the frame disappears. And the content we all love so much doesn't seem to work without a frame13.
When the framing of web pages disappears, so will the skills needed to design within those boundaries. The key lies with the VR content creators’ creativity, and to what extent they manage to break loose from the current 2D medium’s conventions. The harsh truth is that in VR, the need for stylized fonts and perfectly aligned images is significantly lower. Designing within a frame or without one are a world apart15.
The expertise needed for building a regular website doesn't apply when you're building immersive digital environments12. In order to design successfully, you'll need people that have experience in designing environments both digital and real. Think about architects, urban planners, civil engineers and game designers. Any company that strives to compete in the VR content industry must either pivot the skill set of all its designers, or start the hiring engines to fill this skill gap12.
Visual designers are not the only ones that have to adapt in the world of VR. With the disappearance of the frame, the intersection between the user and the Graphical User Interface (GUI) vanishes as well. Because VR replicates real-world experiences, people expect to interact with VR environments as they would with the real world6. Instead of designing behavior on-screen, we need to design behavior within an entire world. The immersive qualities of VR necessitate an understanding of the subtleties in body language, tone of voice, personality, posture, age, etc., rather than just the gestures on a screen14. Anthropologists, Psychologists and other specialists fill this gap perfectly, because they have deeper understanding on the principles of human behavior and the body14.
I can't find my cursor!People have always found ways to extend the capabilities of their hands by designing innovative tools. Even for the digital realm, we have created tools that serve as an extension of our hands in the world of 'zeros and ones'. We have keyboards, mice, trackpads, touchscreens and more. We have adapted to these 'digital hands', and they have also adapted to our physical bodies.
With VR, the need for a physical extension into the digital space changes completely. The keyboards, mice and trackpads are no longer valuable. We need new ways to navigate. The input in the virtual space should be the most versatile tool we were given at birth: our hands. They function as the natural extension of our brains. Eyes, also, lend themselves to be more than useful as input. A company called FOVE has released a VR headset that uses the eyes as a supportive input layer in VR (selection purposes). It also provides the user with a more realistic view in a virtual world, by blurring the edges of peripheral vision (foveated rendering), just as in the real world16.
Our eyes and hands are just the beginning. All of our other senses – hearing, tasting, smelling, and sense of motion – play strong roles in our orientation. Even though there are multiple solutions that allow us to manipulate all these senses, they're vastly undervalued and underused. Our senses work together. Sound should be used much more often, for example, to compensate for the lack of tactile feedback. And speech could be used as a way to navigate in virtual worlds17.
Eventually, the best input for the virtual world would be the place in which all these senses come together: the brain. It might sound like science fiction, but people are already using the brain as an input for computers. A paralyzed woman, for example, was given the power to type messages using 'brainwave reading' technologies18. Even though we're not yet able to work with the brain as an input, one should design with the brain as a starting point. The old inputs for the screen, today seen as efficient extensions of the brain, turn into hindrances when used in VR.
The comeback?Our relationship with the frameworks that have adapted to us is unimaginably strong. We are in love with our GUIs, UX principles, touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and everything that has to do with the 'connected screen'. The only way to break this bond and move on to the world of 3D is the presence of enough high-quality content that proves VR’s value. For this to happen, a significant skill gap first needs to be bridged, in order to create high-quality VR content. Second, the ways we interact with that high-quality content need to be revamped to extend the users’ capabilities in VR. Last, and most crucially, we must establish a framework that supports, amplifies and connects all this VR content together. The boundaries of the Internet’s framework will hinder the medium from successfully delivering its full potential.
As yet, there is no single-framework-solution for VR that acts like the Internet does for all the digital content we have12. Eventually, we need an upgrade that fits the three-dimensional nature of VR and answers the above-mentioned demand for it7. Instead of an internet with your screen as a small square portal, it will be an internet into which we can step. For now, we will name this 3D internet ‘the Metaverse’, first coined in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It's a collective virtual reality, and it is created by the "convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space19." Many researchers and professionals in the field believe that the Metaverse will have a significant presence in our future society7. As the description notes, it is a coalescence of AR, VR and the real world into a reality in which the distinction between physical and digital will be insignificant.
As promising as the Metaverse sounds, I expect it will take a considerable amount of time before it will actually exist. For now, VR will primarily live in the minds of the gamers and specialized industries, but will largely fade into the shadows cast by the Internet. Just as it did before, VR will be back, only then for Round Three. Much of the technologies needed for VR are in place. However, there is no place for it yet in the 'screen-loving' heart of our connected world20. Like the cavemen that made drawings of their world, we are still translating our complex world into 2D content. We aren’t ready yet to make the giant leap towards a 3D paradigm. But considering the ways in which the digital screen has turned our society into socially indifferent, connected zombies, I feel strongly that our 2D, on-screen virtual reality is more than enough for now.
You can find all references in the Dynamic Design Magazine.