Virtual Reality’s Image Problem

Virtual reality has a major image problem.

I see it whenever I read an article about someone’s grandparents experiencing virtual reality for the first time, accompanied by a photo like this:

Which inevitably makes me think of this:

Or when I visit a VR website and am greeted by this:

Or when I do a Google search for virtual reality, and these images pop up on my screen:

Do you see the problem? It’s simple:

  • Headsets that obscure your face look dehumanizing.
  • People looking at headsets look antisocial.
  • Seeing people enjoying something I cannot enjoy is alienating.

Why on earth should I be attracted to an experience that divides people by shutting them off from reality with a bulky headset?

The solution to the problem is to sell the experience. The content. The world inside the headsets. Not the equipment. For example, last year I blogged about The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, an app that reimagines the iconic Queen song in VR.

What attracted me to the app were the images that made me think of the song in a new context. Do you think an image of a VR headset would have had the same effect?

And a few days ago, I got more excited about VR when I spent some time checking out teaser clips for VR experiences such as Lone Echo or seeing how Bully VR dramatizes the impact of bullying through VR. You don’t even need to have VR equipment to start appreciating what’s being shared with me in those examples: an experience.

Mark Zuckerberg is taking a similar approach by selling VR as a social experience. He likes to show demos that feature people exploring the world together. The visual renderings look crude. But I see what he’s trying to do: show us what’s possible as opposed to selling the technology.

Until the creators of virtual reality content and equipment solve the marketing problem, virtual reality will struggle to break through to the mainstream. VR will always have important applications, as it does already. You probably already know VR is changing the world of entertainment and gaming. But did you know VR is being used to assist in surgery, pain management, and worker training? Those are all important applications, and I applaud them. But VR promises to deliver so much more to everyone, everyday.

Advanced forms of augmented reality that require headsets suffer from the same problem. I don’t want to walk by a Microsoft store and see some dude standing in the window with a HoloLens headset on, staring at something I cannot see. But I might be interested if Microsoft advertises the existence of an immersive room set up in the store and invites me to step into another world.

Sell me with content. Draw me in. Lead with the experience, not the technology.

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