We are finally ready for virtual reality. The smartphone industry and availability of the internet has provided the world with pocket computers and has created an “always on, always connected” mentality that will bridge the gap between physical and virtual environments. Virtual reality is coming (arguably, to some circles, is already here) – but it’s the kind of technology that many people haven’t been able to try using, and as such, there’s a clean slate when it comes to creating new experiences for people to share socially in virtual spaces. People have different ideas about how they’d like to use virtual reality and how it could improve their current experiences. If we look at 2014 mobile application usage trends, social sharing is king: users like applications that enable them to connect with other people.
So what do people really want? Virtual reality has been a long standing aspect of simulated training for military organizations and scientific research, but recent investments in more affordable head mounted displays has resulted in the technology becoming increasingly popular with video game enthusiasts and education. When compared to the explosion of mobile apps, it is increasingly clear that users will want a huge variety of experiences to choose from as virtual reality becomes mainstream.
To get a sense of the types of experiences people are looking for in virtual environments, two things were considered: what would be desired content, and who do people want to share their experiences with?
As a basic exploration, I decided to try several approaches to narrow down the set of “virtually everything” into several smaller, actionable projects that could be implemented in VR today. I took to the internet with a quick survey of Facebook and Twitter to get a feel for where people were beginning to see an overlap in their physical world experiences and potential virtual ones, and over the course of several days had miniature brainstorming sessions to sketch out several popular web experiences and doing rough estimations of how they could apply to VR. I also studied the list of top websites via alexa.com to draw patterns in what top web experiences are today and noted that there were several categories that are of particular interest to potential implementation for virtual reality.
Chart 1 below shows a breakdown by category of the top 25 most popular sites worldwide by frequency of visitors. There are several trends here, and of those trends, we can make several assumptions about users of the web:
- People are becoming more inclined to make their online activities social – right now, web portal sites, akin to a traditional news channel on TV, account for 20% of the top 25 most-visited sites. These sites encourage consumption of a large variety of media and topics, and encourage community collaboration.
- Gathering information is critical to web users, with search and reference sites taking 7 of the top 25 spots globally.
- Shopping continues its web growth presence, with Amazon, Ebay, and similar foreign shopping sites taking the second place spot for most web traffic over a 1-month period.
Virtual reality, though, isn’t limited to what people do on the internet – it’s the medium that best allows the translation of real-world activity to a digital one. For this information, I quizzed respondents on their top “In Real Life” activities to get a feel for the general social behaviors of the average user.
While dining is significantly ahead as the top ranked social activity, several other responses proved that a few of my early brainstorming ideas were heading in the right direction. In addition to the actual experiences, after narrowing down the brainstorming activities and referencing the survey data, I found one additional trend that was a key influence in determining opportunities for social experiences in virtual reality, and that was who people wanted to be sharing their virtual experiences with:
I want my virtual reality experiences to be:
Not unexpectedly, what people want to participate in as VR experiences hit mainstream varies immensely between individuals. The very tiny sample size above, while just done as a simple exercise, suggests that users will want a variety of experiences that they can share to varying degrees of social reach. Web trends can give us some insight into where these experiences might grow first, but ultimately the key thing to keep in mind is that users will not want to be forced into virtual experiences and layers of social anonymity will be necessary for users to feel comfortable utilizing different virtual technologies.
At the zenith of virtual reality, users will desire and participate in experiences as vast in the virtual world as hobbies are today – perhaps more so; due to the very nature of computational experiences over physical ones, VR software will be tailored to individual preferences and result in highly personalized experiences. We’re a ways off from that, though, and can look to the past of popular web and mobile apps to shine light on where non-gaming VR will shine in the not-so-distance future. The exciting part will see how far those experiences will go.
Stay tuned for a few mini-projects & proof of concept applications that I’ve done as a result of this research