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Why I'm A VR Skeptic (...and why you should be too)

Back in 2007, our team at Chabot Space and Science Center was through-the-roof excited about the production of a new show for our digital planetarium.

Using the latest technologies in computer Generated graphics (CG) we were looking to fulfill the promise of full dome immersion (programs for planetariums that we not just about space).

We worked with top industry leaders, had killer content utilizing data derived from laser scans we had taken at archeological sites and were confident we had a winner.

And in fact we did. Tales of the Maya Skies won numerous awards and is one of the most widely distributed full dome planetarium shows.

Yet despite our nominal success, we still failed to recoup the investment required for production and to meet ever changing audience expectations.

When I look at Virtual Reality technology (VR) today, I’m reminded of this experience. Frankly, I’m deeply skeptical about the ability of museums and science centers to have success with VR for exhibits for the following reasons:

1) Expense

2) Audience expectations

3) We are seeking genuine rather than mediated experiences

Time and again our industry has sought to chase and leverage the latest technological trend, but rarely do we meet our expectations. Maybe we can avoid the Einstellung Effect this time around.

Reason #1: Expense

It is a simple truth that VR content, like all digital media, is fabulously expensive to produce well. And the emphasis here is on “well”.

A recent New York Times article about AMC’s $40 million dollar investment into VR casually glossed over the fact that a 9 minute experience costs roughly $1.5 million to $2 million to produce. Most if not all science centers and museums simply don't have room for such an investment in their budget.

Even if we economize, we are still looking at a huge up front capital investment for content that by its very nature is vexingly difficult to produce.

And we can’t rely on others to produce it for us. Unlike large screen films (which are having significant challenges of their own, not unrelated) the market size for customized museum or science Center VR is insufficient to support quality production through the amortization of production costs.

Yes, production costs will come down over time, but the challenge in quality content production is not simply a financial or technical one ( ...and I’m not even addressing the limitations as well as expense of the hardware here) ...which brings us to,

Reason #2: Audience expectations

Today most people’s experience with VR is via small demonstration pieces or video games, both of which are typically produced to exacting standards and at a high cost per second. There are also new tools such as drawing and modeling that are pretty cool to play with.

So for the most part, these experiences set the bar. But remember, that bar will only continue to rise.

If VR lives up to its promise in the gaming and possibly training fields, content will continue to improve on the back of huge investments and innovation. And these improvements will happen at a pace our industry is usually incapable of keeping up with.

An analog to this challenge is what has happened with apps and mobile games (remember how we were all going to have one of those integrated into our institution?), where platforms and technologies outrun our ability to keep up.

As a result, audience expectations continually to shift and morph...just compare Angry Birds to Pokémon Go. Further, even if we had the resources and expertise to produce the very best that we can offer with today’s technology, our development windows usually span years from conception to final delivery. So by the time we get new digital content to our audiences, it is already dated in comparison to what they have come to expect.... but it gets even worse.

The reality is that for VR or any digital content to be compelling and effective it requires both high image quality ( for the suspension of disbelief) but also excellent narrative the end it always comes down to great storytelling.

If the challenge were simply a technical one, all digital media would be great. But in fact it’s our ability to execute on the harder creative side that we often underestimate.

Reason #3: We are seeking genuine rather than mediated experiences

The full-dome immersion exhibit at my previous gig drew praise and accolades. But it still didn’t hold a candle to our all-time most popular exhibit: the funky replica of a Mercury capsule that people could climb into, play with the knobs, jiggle the joystick and feel the closest thing they’d ever feel to going to into space, claustrophobia and all. There were nearly always lines.

And even though it was a replica, it delivered a genuine experience. More and more, I believe our audiences will demand these sort of experiences where they actually engage with the content rather than letting it simply wash over or by them. We’re a long way from re-creating such visceral experiences in purely digital form, and I argue we always will be.

And frankly I worry that the wow factor of the immersive aspect alone of VR will wear off pretty quickly. Remember 3D?

Will there be a place of VR in our institution's...probably, but we need to be extremely strategic in determining exactly what that fit looks like, rather than simply chasing the next new thing.

Finally, I’ll leave you with an observation by my colleague Jarrett Sherman of Digital Howard,

“A lot of AR & VR these days falls under what we call the Jurassic Park Rule: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.” There are developers out there who are rushing headlong into producing these experiences without ever stopping to think “Does this application I’m building actually NEED to be VR? Which is a great question to ask yourself before embarking on any project really.”

So....what do you believe?

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