I'm a prisoner, locked away in solitary confinement. I'm an adventurer, navigating through space and time. I'm an observer, looking up at a refugee raft in the Mediterranean. I'm a nine-legged alien, shooting pink and purple cats into a psychedelic sky.
These were just a few of more than 20 virtual reality experiences featured at the second annual World VR Forum in Crans Montana, Switzerland, from May 11 to 14. Together, they offered a taste of VR's ability to transport, inform, and entertain.
The forum brought together an estimated 3,000 VR tech developers, neuroscientists, content creators, and enthusiasts to discuss, debate, and display the ways in which virtual and augmented reality are affecting entertainment, storytelling, and our brains. The event, which some are calling the "Davos of VR," also showcased a collection of VR games, a marketplace of vendors, and a journalism master class in immersive storytelling.
The optimism and excitement of the speakers, creators, and attendees serves as a counterbalance to recent claims that VR might be dead. Sales of VR hardware have fallen below forecasts, and according to reports earlier this year, about 90% of Chinese VR startups have gone bankrupt. The industry continues to face challenges, including expensive equipment, uncertain health effects, and the occasional issue with nausea.
But growing pains are true of any new industry, says Clayton Doherty, the co-founder and president of the forum. VR must now go beyond the hype of the new technology to create meaningful experiences that attract investors and engage users.
"A screen is just a screen until it's something that the mainstream will care about," says Joel Newton, the founder of The Virtual Reality Company, a content studio that creates VR experiences.
Here are five reasons presented at the forum that VR will survive and thrive in the future.
1. VR can be a powerful empathy tool.
Doherty, a self-described "technophobe," says that he first became aware of VR's larger implications when he saw the Clouds Over Sidra experience following a Syrian refugee girl's journey at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015. He says he was inspired by VR's ability to raise awareness, increase empathy, and educate audiences.
"It's not just about games," Doherty says. "It's about social change."
The forum featured the Lost Memories experience from Stefania Casini, which transports visitors under a refugee ship. There, they watch as objects sink down around them while somber music plays.
2. VR can be used in health care.
Some companies are already incorporating virtual and augmented reality into health care. For example, among other things, MindMaze, a Swiss VR startup, uses VR technology to help with stroke rehabilitation by gamifying the experience.
This technology can help patients because our brains process clues in the virtual world that can affect us in the real world, Andrea Serino, head neuroscientist at MindMaze, says.
3. VR technology is creating more immersive experiences.
Increasingly, VR experiences are using the connection between our virtual bodies and our real ones to create immersive journeys. One of the "walking" experiences at the forum, Wake Up and Dream takes users through an interactive adventure, where they duck through doorways, pick up fire-lit torches, hit baseballs, and ride a flying boat while feeling the wind in their hair.
Trackers on their hands and feet allow them to see their arms and legs in the virtual world and create the impression that they're physically moving around in it. Bars around the physical space let them grab onto things in the virtual one, and fans give the impression of wind.
"This is a way to participate actively with your own body, not just being behind a screen," says Caecilia Charbonnier, founder and CTO of Dreamscape Immersive, the creators of the experience. "We are tracking the body so that you are fully immersed. That gives you a feeling of presence in a virtual world."
4. VR has commercial applications.
Another take on VR creates "mixed reality" experiences, which place users in a familiar space — with slight alterations. This tech could have implications for advertising, says Javier Bello, CEO and co-founder of Imverse, a mixed-reality content creation company.
To demonstrate, he photographed a room at the forum and then invited attendees to visit that room in the virtual experience To the Light. There, they're transported to the same room — but have the ability to throw chairs around, break down walls, and fly to the top of a neighboring snow-capped mountain.
"With a photorealistic approach, you are in situations that could really happen to you," he says. "Creating an environment that is relevant to the product, and there is a story behind it is more compelling than a TV spot."
5. VR can be used to create compelling stories.
Some journalists are counting on virtual reality to make important stories tangible and relatable to mass audiences.
For example, After Solitary, a collaboration of Emblematic Group and PBS's Frontline takes people inside the Maine State Prison to hear former prisoner Kenny Moore talk about his experience with solitary confinement and his struggles rehabilitating when he was released.
Virtual reality has the potential to connect audience to events happening far away and to build empathy and understanding, says Cedric Gamelin, senior producer at Emblematic Group.
"VR attracts us with moments of realization that we don't see coming and takes us on new journeys," he says. "This is just the beginning."
To learn more about the World VR Forum, click here.