C-NET came away from this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas pronouncing that virtual reality is going to displace traditional porn.
No surprise that the porn industry leads in technology. Because of all the money in the early days of the internet, porn invested heavily in technology and pioneered pop-ups, redirects, payment collection and more. Much of your everyday internet experience was pioneered by porn sites. In the early ’00s, some studies estimated that porn was responsible for as much as 37 percent of all internet traffic. Now it’s much less, but porn is still trying to figure out the next new thing.
Why should you care? Because virtual reality and its cousin “augmented” reality are getting heavy investment far beyond the porn industry, with more than $4 billion invested since 2010. And with Samsung offering super-cheap VR and the much-touted Oculus Rift coming out, a new generation of immersive viewer-controlled experience is about to take off.
So why should you care?
A friend was recently telling me that she was astonished that in the arts journalism class of 18 students she’s teaching, none of the students seem to have had cultural experiences in common. They don’t share common music, movies, books, or even websites. So how do you explain the importance of David Bowie to people who’ve never heard of him?
Over the past 50 years, popular culture journalists, writers, movie-makers, song-writers and storytellers in general have heavily relied on pop cultural references. They’re shorthands that help place a reader in a scene and give it personal resonance. No common cultural experience, no personal resonance.
Expand out a layer, and this is an argument used in talking about arts education. If children don’t learn to play instruments or go to museums when they’re young, they don’t develop personal resonance with an art form. Personal experience drives future behavior. But for all the power of our increasing diversity, perhaps it’s also getting to be more of a challenge to create community cultural touchstones that resonate personally in the larger culture.
I’ve written before that we shouldn’t just blindly accept the traditional superiority of the live performance space. For an increasing number of people, “live” performances are outside their experience.
Which brings us back to virtual reality and specifically virtual reality for the arts. So companies like Google are heavily invested in VR, and last month Google showed off its 360-degree virtual reality project in the performing arts. You can stand onstage inside the orchestra at Carnegie Hall while the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing or inside an opera dress rehearsal of Lohengrin in Sao Paulo. While you can control camera angles on the stage (it’s based on Google’s street-view tech, which is quite fun), the experience is still quite crude, but it gives you a taste of what the potential could be. (Google’s description of the project here). Another experiment at the Dali Museum in Florida takes you inside a Dali landscape by extending the artist’s world and lets you make your own way through it.
Digital technology has changed our expectations of what experiences should be as well as the ways we want to interact with art and artists. We all bring our own experiences to a theatre. Sitting in a static place, though, we’re all essentially getting the experience in the same static way. But what if we were able to move about virtually, to experience a performance from where we’d choose to be? I might choose to sit in the oboe section or behind the conductor. Or maybe I’d like to move around. Some early basic experiments with multiple views have shown that audiences feel their experiences are enhanced by it.
The bottom line may be that as we get more diverse demographically and culturally, it may no longer be enough to give people just one way of experiencing the arts. The fragmenting of attention and audiences we’ve been seeing is only going to increase.
In the commercial entertainment world they’re adapting. In sports stadiums, they show replays from multiple angles and flash stats on jumbotrons. So what if from my seat in the theatre I could zoom up close to see the actors’ faces at crucial moments or blink my eyes and see more information about this or that character or situation? If VR becomes commonplace in our living rooms, and viewers get used to being able to customize their own experience, sooner or later the static live experience might not be enough for some people.
If you don’t believe me, just look at how addicted most of us our to our smartphones.