COMPACT experience: the convergence of Virtual Reality and Mainstream Media
As the extended reality technology progresses fast, there is a less and less need for physical presence of the actors and performance in the locations presented to the viewer Also the costs of post-processing such as the efforts required to edit the “Green & Blue” Screen material is greatly lowered by introducing just-in-time, interactive backgrounds using relevant infrastructure. Therefore, actors do not need to imagine CGI generated graphics but can see and interact with normally overlayed elements in real time. That applies to both news as well as the entertainment sector. An example is the production of the new Disney’s Start Wars Universe-based series – Mandalorian. That series production is heavily reliant on the latest VR and AR technologies achievements. More and more studios are looking at those technologies since they are unable to produce or deliver their contents in the traditional manner. The phenomenon was particularly reflected in the pandemic lockdowns and consequential delays in production as those circumstances did not allow the film crews either to meet or to perform together. Another unfavourable detail is that most of the cinemas have been closed and the majority of the movie premieres have been postponed. The convergent TV movie making and consumption appear to be justified both economically and through the limitations of the pandemic-stroked world. In particular progressing convergence in the area of media and Virtual Reality can be observed in the domain of Story Telling. Many media houses such as Disney-owned National Geographic produce 360 degree and Spherical videos for VR headset consumption. Fully Immersive, interactive VR experiences are produced by many stakeholders allowing the audience to engage with the content unknown before. In that context many “empathy awareness” material has been created relating to the issues of war, sexual abuse and racial and gender discrimination. In those experiences the audience can “look through the eyes” of the key characters and experience them from their own perspective. Unique experimental shows were conducted in Belgium and Netherlands allowing the participants to “incarnate themselves” in the body of their partners or strangers and were exposed to different, often challenging scenarios. It is clear that the emergent VR technologies can help with some of the major challenges that struck the media in the times of pandemics by the creation of entire new means for content production and consumption not explored before. Thus this technology can bring many of the serious TV and entertainment cases to the next level.
What are the major challenges for VR adoption as a mainstream communication media?
The penetration of the market in terms of available hardware is still a major obstacle. The reason for that is not rooted in the high costs, lack of market supply or bad technology. The last decade brought to the fore major releases of affordable and efficient consumer technologies especially by Facebook-owned Oculus, Microsoft and HTC. The pronounced issue is the lack of awareness of these technologies and the insufficient communication of general progress in the domain by mainstream channels. Many industries, organisations and policy-makers alike need to be convinced that VR technology is no longer the thing of the future but very much the reality of today. The research communication on major VR developments also does not seem to diffuse well to the mainstream media adding to their profile as the legacy information channel. Most of the information about the emerging VR technologies is disseminated via social media, gaming-related streaming and through VR channels themselves therefore through purely convergent media channels. Due to the highly interactive nature of the convergent VR technologies, they cannot be easily talked upon but must be actually experienced. Therefore the practical experience seems to be the major deciding factor for adoption.
Another problem is the bad sentiment around VR with respect to headsets. The early headsets offered very poor experiences and made significant “motion sickness” impact on users while not reassembling anything to what was envisaged in the Sci-Fi literature and Movies for almost half a century. Disappointment and the bad image of VR as expensive and poor experience are still existing factors that turn out to be a major obstacle for the industry to break through.
Within such context there is a need for more positive dissemination and relevant awareness campaigns that showing both the new hardware and software that is available and more application cases should be investigated both by researchers and mainstream media alike. Similarly like in the case of the contemporary social media platforms, there is a need for new players and more plurality in the market to ensure fairness and balanced space. However, no major investments in Europe seem to be made at a scale and magnitude present in other parts in the world and that creates a space for extended domination of the USA-based and Asia-based new players (such as Xiaomi who developed early Oculus Go headsets for Facebook) in the emergent markets. Since the established players are already testing or putting in place next-generation communication media and platforms that are interlinked with their existing platforms, services and business ecosystems, the window of opportunity shrinks for the new players to join the race.
New technologies bring many opportunities but they also bring challenges that should be addressed as early as possible to avoid potential mistakes made in the past (such as those related to social media platforms). It is important to stress the fact that VR generates a completely new set of possible privacy and ethical issues. Experts from Harvard University have warned that a person can be identified with a high level of precision just based on the way they move their body, especially the way they tilt their heads. Since most of the Immersive VR systems require detailed readings from the VR headsets on the movements of person’s heads in real-time there are potential risks for people to being identified without any consent about revealing their personal data. The moment they enter the Social VR space, the system may be able to identify individuals. That is just one of the examples that should be further explored. By and large more research is needed to analyse the potential risks and challenges brought by the new communication paradigms based on the convergence of the most advanced technologies.
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The Material Edited by NUIG & M21F