In with the old and in with the new: reflections on VRX Europe 2019

By 29th April 2019Food for thought

My biggest takeaway from this year’s VRX conference (aside from the fact that playing Angry Birds on a Magic Leap is FUN and pronouncing the names of Dutch craft ales is HARD) is that to encourage mass adoption of immersive technologies, we can’t change everything at once.

VRX is positioned as Europe’s premier immersive tech event. It’s an annual conference and expo covering just about all angles of immersive technologies. For me, it was interesting because it doesn’t just focus on training; you get a nice cross-pollination of ideas from different disciplines. But the theme of bridging the gap to the unfamiliar with the familiar seemed to come up again and again.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of a few talks I went to that touched on this theme.

Short- and long-term strategies for consumer XR – panel discussion

I joined the wrong set of talks. Panic. I was supposed to be in the Enterprise track, but I went through the wrong set of doors and only realised when this panel discussion started. I was slap-bang in the middle of the room with no easy escape.

It was such a happy accident. There was so much from the panels’ consumer insights that can be used in corporate training. Looking back through my notes, it’s this scrawled diagram that stands out.

The discussion presented a consensus that it’s too challenging to popularise new content in a new medium. Adoption comes through familiar and popular content in a new form. Although they were primarily referring to consumer experiences such as adapting TV shows or theatre, the conversation soon fell to education and training.

The panels’ advice was, like with consumer experiences, you need to carefully pick the training experiences that would benefit from immersive technologies. They raised three possible benefits of using VR for training: lower the risk, reduce the cost and increase the quality. The benefits of reducing risk and costs have been quite heavily plundered already (there’s less risk in training a surgeon in VR than there is on a live patient, for example, and the cost can be reduced as you’re not taking up precious hospital time). But the increased quality of learning that comes from VR experiences is a less utilised benefit.

Despite the fact that more and more evidence is emerging that its effects are very real. The Vive study on grade improvement was mentioned as a case in point.

Immersive storytelling: Creating meaningful experiences – panel discussion

As storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective means of learning design, I was keen to join this talk.

The discussion focused on finding a new ‘language’ of storytelling in VR. Trying to recreate a blockbuster movie in 360 degrees isn’t desirable for a number of reasons: it’s too long, persistent cuts are disorientating, the viewer’s gaze needs to be controlled and so on.

We need to find new ways to create tension and catch attention. Devices such as 3D sound, lighting, movement, playing with the space between the viewer and the actors or objects are crucial. But that doesn’t mean we need to invent a new language from scratch.

Instead, the panel suggested thinking about VR storytelling more like a stage play than a movie.  One of the speakers pointed out that the Circus Soleil has never had any problems making sure the audience is looking in the right direction!

The place of VR & AR in arts, culture and heritage – panel discussion

As storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective means of learning design, I was keen to join this talk.

The discussion focused on finding a new ‘language’ of storytelling in VR. Trying to recreate a blockbuster movie in 360 degrees isn’t desirable for a number of reasons: it’s too long, persistent cuts are disorientating, the viewer’s gaze needs to be controlled and so on.

We need to find new ways to create tension and catch attention. Devices such as 3D sound, lighting, movement, playing with the space between the viewer and the actors or objects are crucial. But that doesn’t mean we need to invent a new language from scratch.

Instead, the panel suggested thinking about VR storytelling more like a stage play than a movie.  One of the speakers pointed out that the Circus Soleil has never had any problems making sure the audience is looking in the right direction!

There was a lot to take from this talk, but my highlight was Deborah Papiernik from Ubisoft talking about their work with UNESCO recreating ancient sites in VR that have been destroyed by war.

Despite having a team of very able game designers at Ubisoft, they were keen to remove any interactivity from the experiences. Their aim was to have the broadest appeal possible so that anyone from the age of eight to 80 could feel comfortable accessing these experiences. For many, this would be their first time in VR, so Ubisoft wanted to keep it simply as a chance to step back in history.

VR’s potential in connecting communities, Felicia Williams, Head of Product Design – Social VR London, Facebook

Having acquired Oculus in 2014, it’s unsurprising that Facebook has been hard at work researching how to create communities in VR. But this talk was a really interesting opportunity to get insights into what that could look like.

Felicia Williams spoke about how they were looking to use VR to reinstate the physicality of interactions. Body language, proximity and spontaneity are central to face to face communication but they’re missing from most digital experiences.

As well as reinstating the physicality of communication, they’re also looking to VR to create new opportunities for self-expression through the use of avatars. You’ll be able to convey the different facets of your personality by creating multiple avatars that you can use depending on your mood or context. This could range from the highly stylised to the scarily photo-realistic

These are just a few highlights. There was so much insight given over the two days, I struggled to condense it down into this round-up. But what all these talks have really made me think about is how we can bridge that gap for learners in a corporate environment from the familiar to immersive experiences. It’s only when we can make what they’re already doing easier, more enjoyable or more successful that will mass adoption occur.

It’s the classic behaviour change equation; the reward the change could bring needs to outweigh the perceived effort required to make that change. This is a really interesting lens to look at the adoption of immersive learning through: an AR app on a phone might not have the full effect of viewing that experience on a headset, but it’s more likely to be adopted. Creating a single VR scenario for a face-to-face training session might not have the same breadth as creating the entire course in VR, but it’ll be a more supported introduction to what this type of training can offer.

We can’t simply cast out old practices to make way for new technologies. Instead, we need to look for opportunities to enhance familiar training situations with easy to access immersive experiences. The rest will snowball from there… 

Additional takeaways from VRX.

Immersive technology companies are increasingly finding funding difficult to secure. But in order to increase your success, focus on what the product is, not trying to convince them immersive technology is the future. If they’re looking at investing in it, they already understand the tech.

It emerged that HTC is set to launch another funding round with the VRVCA (Virtual Reality Venture Capital Alliance) in May 2019. We’ll be sure to follow this closely and share our opinions once we know more.

5G was a hot topic throughout the conference with discussions leading towards what the technology might enable VR/AR to become. Suggestions included Multiplayer Synchronisation and Offloading Spatial Mapping. The consensus was that although the technology is being tested in the UK right now, it’ll have a similar adoption timeline to the likes of 4G with it taking years for the general masses to have stable and reliable access to it.

As the industry develops, it’s becoming increasingly important that measuring metrics and analysing data becomes the standard for projects – especially when the work is client-facing. It was noted that too many people within the industry are focusing on design, and not enough about ROI.