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.

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Content Is King in Virtual Reality

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Virtual reality believers have had a lot to smile about lately, as Facebook and Google took big steps to make VR mainstream.

On October 4, Google launched its anticipated $79 Daydream View VR headset, part of Google’s toolkit to embed VR into our lives through Google’s ecosystem, whether we’re watching concerts on YouTube or navigate Google Maps. Two days later, Mark Zuckerberg wowed the technology industry by showing off a slick VR demo at the Oculus Connect developer summit, which showed how quickly Facebook is delivering on Zuckerberg’s vision to transformation social media into social VR.

These are indeed good reasons to be excited about the future of VR. But you know what really made me feel passionate about VR in recent weeks? Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Yep, an iconic song that was released more than 40 years ago gave me a more compelling glimpse of the future than any demos and new products coming out of Silicon Valley recently. Last month, Queen, Google Play, and studio Enosis VR collaborated to create The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, an app that presents Queen’s masterpiece as an immersive journey “through frontman Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind,” in Google’s words. After you download the app, you can experience the song with or without Google Cardboard in Android or iOS, as I did one recent afternoon. (Google Cardboard enables the VR experience, but without the viewer, you can still enjoy the song with a 360-degree view by tilting your screen — not quite VR, but a step toward it.)

And by “experience the song,” I do mean experience. Here is an inspiring, visually stunning re-imagining of Queen’s most endearing work. Drawing on animation that reminds me of Yellow Submarine, the video depicts a world of stars, floating snails, twirling figurines, moving album covers, forbidden caves, and members of Queen exploding in neon — just within the first few minutes of the six-minute epic.

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God knows how many times I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before seeing the song this way. It’s the kind of song that I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention to each time I hear it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t need VR to be memorable. But VR gave me a fresh perspective. It made me experience the music in a new way by using spatialized sound, or sound that corresponds to different segments of a video depending on how you turn your head.

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the latest example of how Google is partnering with artists to show us the possibilities of VR. For example, through Google Spotlight Stories, Google and directors such as Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) make short movies in VR. And on October 16, the 600th episode of The Simpsons will feature a virtual reality sight gag developed with Google. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably Google’s most ambitious creative partnership yet. The song speaks to multiple generations and has become so far embedded in popular culture that future generations will be singing along with Freddie Mercury in 2926. The app entailed a collaboration with Queen guitarist Brian May, a braniac who has a PhD in astronomy and who also just happened to help develop a VR viewer through his directorship of The London Stereoscopic Company.

The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience illustrates two essential truths about VR:

1. The Content Has to Be Great

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is great. But “We Built This City” would suck in any reality. If you start with terrible content, experiencing VR is about as compelling as watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 3D: virtual crap. By working with acclaimed and popular artists such as Queen and Continue reading