Never mind the technology, let’s talk about the awesome.

It’s the creative, transformational and downright magical potential of VR/AR that’s kept me evangelising about the media. The capacity to transform, transport, defy gravity, bend reality, swim through the incredible, real-time body swap or place yourself in the very centre of the cosmos.

The potential of VR and, to a slightly lesser extent, AR is limitless and very, very, VERY exciting. For anyone who’s got the slightest imagination, it’s both a playground and possibly the most impactful medium since story telling began – a big claim which I’ll justify later, but first…a little grrrr.

“Too few users and little access”
Up until now, the ability to create and experience VR/AR has been restricted by access to tools of creation, distribution and access - and a damn great cost. This has essentially restricted the media to the few (and this is still the case with the Oculus Rift) unless you happen to be at a theme park, museum or work in an agency with an innovation department and a lot of budget to burn, it’s hardly an inclusive platform.

But then, whilst not exactly out of the blue - Google, Facebook and RICOH came along and delivered both the tools for creation, viewing and distribution. Most of these already existed (cardboard for the headset, SDK and YouTube for the distribution platform) – and RICOH just got there first with their very affordable 360 camera.

Thus we enter a new and exciting phase of mass availability and hopefully evolution of more incredible.

“A million monkeys”
So now, for less than a cost than a bag of goodies and a trip to Alton Towers, VR/AR has reached mass level. You can now create and distribute AR/VR content as easily as making a Vine, A Ricoh Theta 360 camera costs around £299, Google cardboard about £15, a pair of Roland Binaural mics about £120+. The rest you already have in your hand in the shape of your phone, which effectively levels the creative playing field and opens the creative flood gates.

Welllllllllll…

Whilst most folks will duplicate and imitate what they’ve seen everyone else do, it’s the creative innovators and inventors who bend and break the media to become something more than your home movies from all angles.

Which means as long as we can wean ourselves off the Oculus ecstasy and stop banging on about the damn tech and focus on “what the tech can deliver for us” we can focus on the burning desire of “I need to to tell you a story.” A desire to tell/create/make a story first - with the technology the enabler.

“Augmenting Reality for 180 years”

Virtual Reality SXSW

One of my favourite talks at SXSW this year was a panel discussion with Mark Thompson, CEO at New York Times, who also coined the quote above about the historic newspaper.

In case you’ve been too immersed in your Oculus for the past year or so, the deeply respected NYT, in partnership with Google and VR start up Vrse, have been collaborating on bringing their journalistic chops to the platform. Vrse is available for free on the Android Play Store - best viewed through Google Cardboard (which they give away free to every reader) and a pair of headphones.

What’s particularly newsworthy about this is the NYT’s whole approach to journalism. It is after all, first and foremost, a newspaper. The magazine has a rich heritage in big story telling: immersive narratives are their stock in trade. They’re always looking for better ways to deliver a story. VR allows them to break the magical line between linear narrative, where the reader will always be the observer, following the written or filmed story, to now crossing the line and putting them into a deep, emotionally immersive world.

The reader is now, literally, right in the middle of the story, albeit a very carefully crafted one, which is essentially the essence of good journalism.

And that is why the partnership between Vrse and NYT is so damn exciting, because it is the crafted evolution of a media, led by experience not technology.

The team at The NYT and Vrse are now regularly pushing the format as far as it can to help bring the reader/viewer the best editorial experiences, like the VICE/Intel Creators’ Project, they’ve created a wonderful platform/playground for the best and the experimental.

The Creators Project is the perfect place to start to look for a starting point as well as inspiration to create and distribute, and it’s in the sharing that the real evolution of this media comes to the fore.

“Things are always better together”
It would be accurate to comment, that VR is essentially a solo experience. It’s also fairly accurate to say that the closest VR comes to being an entertaining group activity, is watching someone else experiencing it.

Once again though, it is the mobile and games that up the ante. Both the portability and the capacity to connect in real time takes VR/AR from being a bit of a two-second-joyride in a museum, into a true, mass emotional experience.

Beyond journalism the uses are endless: sport, live events, big and small, all now very much available – and it’s to the creators we now turn – give the people the tools and let them reinvent reality.

This blog is part of a series about the emerging trends coming out of SXSW, read our Technical Director's look at Cyber Security and Privacy here.