Virtual reality (VR) deserves its breathless headlines, eager-beaver entrepreneurs and hopeful VCs. It's a big deal— the frontier of immersive experiences moving beyond videogames and 3D movies towards the holodecks from Star Trek.
However, VR in the near future will not be as transformative as email, MP3s, blogging, texting and social media were in the recent past. Today's VR overlaps two different sorts of immersion: technological and cognitive. While strong on the first, VR is weak on the second.
VR has already proven itself with its technological ability to immerse the user through software-generated illusions born from the arms race of companies including Oculus, PlayStation and Vive, to name a few. The dream is that users will plug into the matrix, or create an avatar that allows the world around us to fade away.
But we humans are a short-attention-span species. While it's easy to get lost in a video game or to fall into a Facebook trance, after awhile those experiences feel like misplaced time rather than the stuff that memories are made of.
Cognitively immersion is a different beast. It yokes together multiple layers of experience, one of them social. With cognitive immersion your mind has different places to go at different levels. When your attention wanders from one level, it bumps into another — never leaving the overall experience. Technology can amplify cognitive immersion, but isn't required.
Want concrete examples? Try football.
When you're a fan watching a game—live in the stadium is best—you aren't just watching your team win or lose. You compare today's game to past games, wondering about the effect of a running back's injury two weeks prior, speculating if a former coach would have used a different strategy, and calculating how the final score affects the team's Super Bowl chances.
That's just what's happening in your own head. If you're in the stands, you're likely also talking smack with other fans, texting friends who aren't there, while munching snacks and drinking beer. Oh, and let's not forget "the wave," where the audience puts on its own mini-show. If you belong to a fantasy football league, then you're likely applying what's on the field to your fantasy team's progress.
That's a minimum of four levels (today's game, other games, interaction with other people and fantasy football) of experience happening at the same time and all contained in one conceptual bag called "watching football." With the right collection of other people around such experiences can be unforgettable.
It's not just football: cognitive immersion might have started with Shakespeare, the first playwright to have a strategic, multi-level relationship with his audience. Shakespeare's original audience paid attention to the character and the actors playing them, compared the story to other plays, and listened for allusions to events outside the play. Shakespeare's fans juggled all these layers while jostling against each other in broad daylight, buying snacks and beer, cheering and jeering.
That's five levels, if not more, all contained by one label: Shakespeare. (You can learn more about the "Shakespeare Strategy" here.)
Boiling it down, two key requirements for cognitive immersion are that it is live and social. Most VR experiences today are neither.
Instead, most VR today is gorgeous to look at but antisocial to experience. You're a bodiless head, cut off from the rest of the world. While there's plenty of oxygen, moving through VR can be uncoordinated, like walking on the ocean floor.
Once, at a VR film festival in Portland, Oregon, while I was exploring a 3D representation of a house from a Van Gogh painting, I lost my balance and reached for a chair. My hand is real, but that chair was virtual. I fell into the woman next to me, who had been immersed in her own, unrelated VR experience and unwittingly clobbered her back into the real world.
Email, MP3s, blogging, texting and social media transformed older forms of media and communication, and empowered ordinary folks so they could do things that had been previously expensive or difficult to do alone.
Email took away paper mail. MP3s made CDs and record shops redundant and also enabled a new medium called podcasting. Blogging meant you didn't need a printing press to become a publisher. Texting created interruptive communications that didn't require the synchronization of a voice call. And social media turned the coffee shop bulletin board into a virtual one, worldwide.
Today's VR doesn't do any of that. Users can play VR, but they can't control it, making it truly their own. It's not generative (this is Jonathan Zittrain's term from his 2009 book The Future of the Internet— and How to Stop It) or transformative, and it's not cognitively immersive.
I've been at pains in this column to preface "VR" with modifiers like "today's" for one good reason: Facebook bought Oculus Rift for two billion dollars, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that within five years Facebook will be mostly video.
It's easy to read this and think that video means television. But I think the video Zuckerberg means is person-to-person communications and group video chat without the "Where do I look?" weirdness.
Today, Facebook Live is an awkward exercise. But Facebook created Live to train users to share experiences on the platform in real time. If the world's most social company can use Oculus to master live, shared, video experiences, then it will have created VR that is both technologically and cognitively immersive.
And that will change everything.
Dr. Brad Berens is Senior Fellow and directs the Connected Experiences Project at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. You can learn more about him at www.bradberens.com, and follow him on Twitter as @bradberens. He writes a monthly column for GearBrain.