Virtual Reality – Additive or Subtractive

A young science fiction writer called William Gibson famously noted a quarter of a century ago, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Around the time of Gibson’s writing in Redwood California, Jaron Lanier was experimenting with early Virtual Reality (VR) test rigs. However, like Hollywood’s flirtations with 3D cinema around the same time, the mainstream wasn’t ready for stereoscopic sharks or unwieldy crash helmet size headsets. Jaron Lanier’s early virtual reality tests represented a prolific sense of deep immersion for the viewer. However, coarse visual quality and juddering frame rates only surmountable with a huge prohibitively computer setups and accompanying sick bags would see virtual reality languish for a further quarter century. In corollary 3D stereoscopic appears again to be hitting the same cultural resistance. James Cameron’s self-indulgent Avatar and its near quarter of a billion-dollar production budget is yet to realise a tipping point.

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The breakthrough point for Virtual Reality came from an unusual alley in the form of the now ubiquitous smart phone. VR has successfully piggy-backed the phones technological advances in screen resolution, gyroscopes and processing power as mass adoption economics push manufacturing costs down. Now VR technology appears to be coming of age will it see mass adoption like the smart phone technology it principally relies on? Or like 3D cinema, although technologically impressive will it be deemed a concord moment.

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The signs from here are positive. The cash rich and confident games industry is the primary force behind current VR content development and certainly seem to have little doubt.  Established franchise titles of Doom and Fallout 4 have already demonstrated VR equivalents. Oculus provided Epic Games with funding to further develop the Bullet Train demo from last year into a fully-fledged FPS game called Robo Recall. This demo had one of the most polished and mature game mechanics, expanding upon the Bullet Train bullet capture-and-throw mechanic into new weapons and up-close hand-to-hand combat with stylised arcade AI robots gone rouge.

Google have backed Magic Leap’s technology to the tune of almost half a billion to bring light field wearable technology to mainstream before the decade is out.  Although Google glass has been met with mixed reactions. The question of adoption is undebatable and VR’s time certainly seems to have come. Although only a deep dive on an industry by industry basis can determine the velocity with which this tipping point is reached.

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Operating in both the games and property sector affords a unique perspective. Aggressive moves made in the games industry to push VR adoption have certainly made most property developers at least sit up and take notice. Before adoption we must consider the final application.  Are they purely cosmetic and showmanship or are there more practical applications planned?

Virtual Reality has two basic types of deep immersion. The Games sector has seen to it that the additive experience is conspicuous. The embellishment of any visual experience, it takes the PlayStation or Xbox game you normally played on your flat screen at home. It ratchet’s up realism and immersion to hyper real levels. Property marketers love bells and whistles and additive experience unquestionable provides this. The quickly commoditised and now ubiquitous 2D photo-sphere 360 are quick and cheap to produce. Allowing soft introduction for a cautious industry to much higher grades of deep immersion afforded with VIVE, Oculus and PlayStation VR.

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From recent first-hand experience in the property sector I note with confidence that the VR 2D photo-sphere 360’s briefly amuses and titillates the viewer. While the likes of the Vive and Oculus along with their hand controls and lateral tracking promote you from passive viewer to enthusiastic participant in a micro second. Experiential issues have been fundamentally eradicated from these high end headsets. Visual latency is now inconsequential and reaching for the sick bag is a thing of the past.  Although more expensive, less mobile, and currently not wireless. Bulgaria-based Quark VR is partnering with Valve , which co-developed the Vive, to create a wireless option. A prototype version is expected to be shown this year.  This week Valve also showed a much smaller hand controller this week at SteamDevDays which straps to the palm allowing the user to let go and avoid dropping.

The property industry is currently flirting heavily with low grade Samsung smart phone driven VR in it’s cheap and accessible VR 360 form. It’s fundamentally faked nature denies the user anything other than a short sharp engagement. It has however represented a soft introduction to many staunch advocates of traditional digital and print collateral.

Ironically vendors of this drastically paired back, crude VR experience appear to be doing little to educate their clients and encouraging that important next step, pivotal to the longevity of the VR market. Suppliers are either unwilling or unable to educate their clients and assist in the positive next rung up the VR ladder. 2D photosphere 360 are great cheap introduction to a fickle market but maturity needs to come soon.

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Virtual reality in application to the property industry and be decanted into areas of application.  Additive or subtractive.  Additive experiences, cranking up the hyper-real for a VR marketing suite are without question the more glamorous if not cosmetic application.  It’s designed to start a conversation between customer and supplier.

The subtractive benefit’s while less alluring could easily be plugged in much further upstream and prove more consequently. Here VR removes questions and subsequent conversations with a pre-emptive and proactive deployment. Selling your end customer on upgrading his kitchen’s worktop to white marble is one things but what about expediting your PRS developments whole planning process by forcing frank conversations early and often with Local Authorities in a VR generated city scape. It’s now completely possible to remove the interactive planning application approach using conventional plans, elevations and CGI’s. What if you could show the planner first hand in a VR city scape that the on-paper mass of your design proposal while potentially worrying on paper is in actuality quite sympathetic to the local vernacular. What if this removed the deadlock over a contentious design elements and cut chunks of time of the design and planning stage.

Historically the production of digital collateral took the form of CGI and Animation film work, not without its flaws. No developer can afford unlimited CGI imagery of any development. As the CGI imagery is for planning or marketing purposes it will by definition lean towards showing the project in its most positive light.  As the design process evolves the project is repeatedly evaluated from these pre-determined viewpoints. While the CGI created is as close to real as technology and talent will allow it is a blinkered approach.

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All conversations with clients inevitably lead to the question of “so how much is this going to cost me?”  A question which is far easier to parry with how much time and money it will ultimately save over you over the lifespan of the project.

I believe that although there are undeniable economic benefits unaccounted for positive side effect thus far has been the enhancement of collaboration. With Virtual Reality everyone ends up on the same side of the table literally and figuratively. Interactions are open and honest. Everyone experiences the same mean. Tech still has a novelty factor and still benefit’s from bringing some much needed theatre to potentially arduous proceedings.

While using the same technology but taking very different routes. The property and games industries are still aiming for the same positive conclusion. Engagement, immersion and fun.

Anthony Hartley-Denton
Managing Director

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