In 1970, Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest with her rendition of All Kinds of Everything. The following year, Ireland was required to host the Eurovision Song Contest, with Raidió Teilifís Éireann broadcasting the event throughout Europe live from the Gaiety Theatre.
Only there was one difference - that year, the broadcast would be in colour.
What followed were almost Father Ted-esque scenes of protests outside the venue against the national broadcaster foisting an unnecessary technology on the Irish people. Black and white was just fine.
The anecdote serves to illustrate that media innovation often faces resistance
The history of media in the 20th century has seen a number of innovations. In film, there was the transition from silent movies to the 'talkies'. Television saw the move from black and white to colour, and from 4:3 screen ratio to 16:9 ratio. Next up is the move from High Definition to 4K. The internet, a relatively young medium, has also been fuelled by innovations such as broadband, wireless technologies and the proliferation of smartphones.
But there have also been numerous failures as well: Cinemascope, 3D technology, WAP, Apple’s Newton, WebTV, Google Glasses, Playstation EyeToy. The list goes on.
The common symptoms when it comes to the 'Next Big Thing' in media innovation are as follows:
1) The innovation is usually made possible by a preceding much greater and profound innovation.
2) Often the ‘innovation’ is just a newer, better version of an older innovation.
3) You get a euphoria in the entrepreneurial and venture capital community around this innovation.
4) A LOT of money spent trying to prove that the innovation is a ‘game-changer’.
5) Then there are the inevitable conferences, books and thought-leaders dedicated to that innovaton.
The prognosis, however, is usually fatal – and the innovation goes by the wayside, usually to re-emerge in another guise later.
But that’s not always the case. Some innovations do succeed - obviously. In my experience, in order for the innovation to succeed, it needs to meet at least one of the following criteria:
1. The technology needs to be sufficiently advanced so as to be "indistinguishable from magic", to borrow a phrase from Arthur C. Clarke. It becomes almost immediately addictive. Indispensable.
2. It needs to enhance the storytelling capability of the medium.
3. There needs to be minimum barriers to adoption. This often is about price and affordability - but it can also mean that it’s easy to use.
Failure is almost inevitable, in an industry where concepts tend to pre-figure technology or capability often by a long shot. The reason is that much of the pioneers in technology - particularly in the area of media technology - are steeped in science fiction and geek culture. They are just way ahead of their time... and ultimately impatient.
But science fiction, in fact, is often a good gauge of what innovations will be successful. Whether that is because science fiction predicts or whether science fiction inspires, it’s hard to know. It is probably a bit of both.
So in terms of virtual reality and Immersive Storytelling, the first immersive story I became aware of was Steve Jackson’s and Ian Livingstone’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – the first in the Fighting Fantasy range of books. In this case the magic was provided by your imagination whereby decisions you made prompted you to turn to a certain page in the book to see the outcome.
Around the same time saw the advent of computer games, as personal computing came into the home.
These early immersive games were all steeped in what we now call Geek Culture - an obsession with the escapism of fantasy literature and the techno-optimism of the science fiction, melded in the furnace of countless re-runs of Star Trek on television and faux-western space operas like Star Wars. Kids with such a disposition were naturally drawn to the promise of the emerging personal computing craze.
Enter the internet...
The birth of the Internet, of course, was the ultimate boon for the personal computing generation, as suddenly the power of the network emerged both as a communications platform, but more powerfully as a media, entertainment and ecommerce platform. In effect, it took the programmers with their personal computers – out of the bedroom and made them 'Masters Of The Universe', (a fittingly geeky epithet). The boom and bust of the late 1990s Dotcom era was a mind boggling experience where common business sense seemed to be thrown out the window, as Venture Capital money was thrown blindly at anything with a .com at the end of it.
It goes without saying that this period exhibited all of the above symptoms – but the Internet itself was an innovation that would not be going away in hurry.
One memory that stuck with me from the time was an online application called Multiverse, which over a DSL broadband line offered a vector-based virtual world. It was a glimpse of what was coming down the tracks – but it was hobbled by low bandwidth. But it was clear that the dreams of a holodeck were firmly in the minds of the geeks who were building this brave new world...
But big media – i.e. television – was still the main media game in town and, importantly, had the bulk of the advertising revenue. They were keen to get in on the action – and were none too keen that this uppity interweb thing might take away precious eye-balls. In 2000, I found myself in Lisbon working with TV Cabo, the cable operator in Portugal, which was purchased by Microsoft with a view to develop Enhanced Television. This was to be the ultimate meeting of old and new media – pre-dating the doomed AOL/Time Warner merger.
The idea was to bring together the high production values and mass appeal of television, with the interactivity and ecommerce opportunities afforded by the internet. This was their idea of immersive storytelling.
However, it was an absolute disaster.
For one, it was not actually powered by the internet – it was an asynchronous feed, with most of the hard work done on the client side. This led to the set-top box often crashing. For the Microsoft personnel, this was part of the course. Just press Ctrl-Alt-Del. PCs crash all the time. We looked on in horror. TVs don’t crash. They never crash. No viewer would accept their TV crashing… and they didn’t. Microsoft soon wound up its interest and TV Cabo went back to being TV.
The immersive storytelling promise of interactive TV would have to wait.
Meanwhile, broadband speed and processing power of computers were neatly following Moore’s Law. A start-up called Linden Labs, led by Philip Rosedale, released Second Life, a virtual world that provided a user-created, community-driven virtual world that quickly grew a lot of attention.
Caught up in the euphoria and potential myself, I set up a virtual worlds startup called VR Rising with my brother which aimed to exploit the educational space in Virtual Worlds. We helped build a virtual Dublin in Second Life, and the idea was to have virtual seminars and conferences.
But Linden Labs' promised utopia fell into the carnal trap that seems to be befall many utopian dreams. When you give unlimited freedom online... weird sex fetishes quickly follow.
I remember hosting an online seminar with 20 or so people in the simulation, when a number of animated penis-shaped avatars invaded out of nowhere.
And that was that.
In 2010, Stereoscopic cinema was the great innovation, and I got caught up in the euphoria again, running a 3D Cinema training programme for European producers. Yes, 3D cinema was nothing new, but this time it was different. It had the backing of Hollywood heavyweights like James Cameron, Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson. This was the future of cinema – the next big breakthrough since colour. Except it wasn’t.
The reasons for its failure were manifold. In order to fulfil demand from the cinema chains who had invested heavily in the digital projector technology, studios rushed out digitally re-formated version of older non—3D movies. Also, the skill to shoot in stereoscopic 3D was just not there, something we were trying to remedy - but it meant that original content was a mixed bag. But stylish examples like James Cameron’s Avatar showed that the experience could be magical and enhance the storytelling. But for me, what quickly became apparent was that the barrier for entry that really thwarted mainstream adoption was the glasses – particularly for 3D televisions. With not enough content, and the need for batteries, the glasses quickly found themselves lost down the back of the couch - along with the hopes and dreams of many a studio executive.
So finally we come to virtual reality - and as you can see, the feeling of déjà vu is understandable. So when we look at the symptoms, they are clearly all there. The innovations we are talking about are made possible by previous innovations – bandwidth availability, ubiquity of mobile smart phones and processing power. We’ve been here before – startups like Second Life and Multiverse have paved the way with their failures. There is definite interest – but maybe not quite the same euphoria as witnessed around other current innovations.(Cryptocurrencies, please step forward). And the conference circuits have begun with plenty of people describing these innovations as "gamechangers".
So what’s the prognosis?
Well, is it indistinguishable from Magic? Yes – sometimes. You can’t help but be blown away by some immersive VR experiences – for example, the Tilt Brush experience in the Vive.
Artist Paco Cao leads ten illustrators while they're experimenting with #TiltBrush. This is 'Control', a performance held @LAGNroma with @googlearts. Discover the result 👀➡️ https://t.co/OAiFpBeHUw pic.twitter.com/TbSvWxJGDU— Tilt Brush (@tiltbrush) February 5, 2018
Does it enhance the storytelling capability of the medium? Undoubtedly. VR puts you right into the centre of the action – which narratively raises a number of challenges.
Is there a barrier to entry? Here’s the rub. This is particularly why the lessons from stereoscopic 3D are most pertinent. The headsets are cumbersome, and so the lure of the content is critical for adoption.
To be honest, the content – and the experience of the content - is not quite there. There is not enough of it – and that addictive, indispensable, dopamine-firing experience just isn’t there, which doesn’t bode well.
Will it happen? I think it will. And to see how, we can look again to science fiction. Later this year, Steven Spielberg releases his film adaptation of Ready Player One, based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline. The novel is set in a dystopian future where inevitable climate change has made the world a pretty awful place to live in. Instead, the denizens of the future have chosen to live in a virtual form on a platform called the Oasis. It’s similarities to Facebook are not a coincidence, especially when you consider their purchase of Oculus.
What differentiates this virtual reality from what we have now are the haptic suits and chairs that the users have to don to enter the world. This makes it completely immersive – and frankly, indistinguishable from magic. For me, it was the most compellingly realistic interpretation of how a large scale virtual reality platform might actually work. And it’s frightening.
In the book, the barrier for entry is so low that the mega-powerful Oasis corporation give away headsets for free to those who can’t afford them. As you need money to move around the Oasis and purchase things, the crypto-currency poor have to make do with free educational software and doing menial virtual tasks to make money.
It may not be the reality you want – and it’s not going to happen right away – but virtual reality is definitely in your future. And it probably looks something like Facebook with goggles.