This past July, members of the eLearning community gathered at 2017 Realities360 Conference to learn from the experiences of pioneers in the creation of AR, VR, and other alternative realities. The tone of the conference and high expectations were set during the opening general session, “How VR Is Changing the Future of Content.” Keynote speaker Maxwell Planck described his own journey that began with animated feature-length films during his 10 years at Pixar. Then, believing that VR was the next great medium for telling stories, he moved on to VR as the technical co-founder of Oculus Story Studio, where they created Lost, Henry, and Dear Angelica, short (10-minute) immersive VR experiences for the Oculus Rift.

Facebook closed Oculus Story Studio in May 2017, ending the first chapter of VR for Planck, and he decided to step back and evaluate where VR fit into storytelling, entertainment, and learning. He found that he came up with some new insights into what content does and does not work in VR.

Planck’s insights include the following:

  • VR adoption

    Planck sees VR’s adoption status as just emerging from the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle (Figure 1). In his wide-ranging talk, he described many barriers to VR adoption, some fundamental mistakes we have made, and what we may need to do before VR is widely accepted. Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from his speech was his observation that VR is an entirely new medium and requires different content than the medium of film.


    Figure 1: Virtual reality is just beginning to emerge from the so-called Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle (Bianca Woods, The eLearning Guild) 

  • The nature of VR

    Previously, Planck believed that VR was an evolution of film—the next leap forward. He now believes that he was wrong: VR is a new medium, and we will be more successful with VR when we treat it as such. Film is great for telling stories in a sequential, linear fashion, while VR is an empathy machine, providing immersion and a crafted presence unique to VR. But presence is an enemy to storytelling. In VR, users need time to look around and discover things for themselves, but allowing the user to look around interrupts a story. Therefore, a story told in VR must be simpler, less dense, and faster-paced compared to that same story told in film.

  • The delivery devices are not compelling to consumers

    The current delivery devices for immersive VR experiences are something not everyone wants to take home. They are both expensive and bulky—you are still strapping a smartphone to your face, using sensors, upscale computers, and a bunch of “magic tricks.”

    As with other emerging technologies, the costs are coming down and new technology is on the horizon, including untethered, immersive, and stand-alone VR hardware—something you can put in a backpack.

  • The creation tools are not appropriate for L&D

    The early adopters of VR are using the Unity and Unreal game engines to create content. These tools require the hard-earned skills of a game engineer. This was not a barrier to early adopters who ride the wave of new technologies, but it will be to the subsequent early majority adopters and late majority adopters, slowing the adoption rate even more. At Oculus Story Studio, engineer Inigo Quilez created the VR illustration tool, Quill, that allowed illustrator Wesley Allsbrook to draw content in VR. Educators need more tools like this.

  • The cost of VR

    A Pixar feature-length animated film, approximately 90 minutes, took four years to create. The cost of creating a VR experience is much higher. Oculus Story Studio made about one 10-minute short per year. An audience of one is not big enough to justify the cost of producing VR.

So, given these realities, what should we do?

Social first

While VR has found a place in games, VR for other forms of consumer entertainment is very hard. Our attention is saturated. We often use multiple devices (phone, tablet, and TV) simultaneously. Asking people to give up something and strap on a headset is too much to ask. It causes an entry barrier because being isolated in VR is not enough—and it is intimidating. Planck once thought the problem of telling a story to a single person should be solved first, before moving on to something involving multiple people. He now believes we need to build in social from the beginning. VR should be a social experience, not a single-player experience.

What about the future of content?

We still have a content problem. VR should engage and build social value. It will become a new thing to do that is like “going out.” To go out with our friends, we dress up, leave our homes, go to theaters, sports events, bars; and we pay money for all this, mainly to meet up with friends.

How can we build social value in VR? With VR-centric content. Planck suggests that a VR experience needs a quest and puzzles to solve, much as groups of people do in Dungeons and Dragons. A VR experience can be something that brings friends together to create stories and solve problems. Rather than simply recount a story that you cannot change, a VR experience can say, “This is the beginning and you are going to create a story.” The ideal VR experience provides a puzzle or quest and common tools, but how each group of participants solves that quest together can be unique.

Pamela Gutman, learning consultant in talent development at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, made this observation afterward: “Maxwell Planck’s keynote session was a fantastic way to open the Realities360 conference. He discussed what we’ve done well in VR, what the challenges are, and what the future holds. After his talk, my focus on what VR can and should do has really shifted; instead of just using VR as an amazing storytelling platform, I’m now thinking of how it can be a social adventure where multiple people can experience a new environment together.”

There were so many very valuable information nuggets in Maxwell Planck’s keynote, but his views on VR as a wholly new medium and the type of content we should craft for this medium struck me as the highlight. I am looking forward to a future with rich VR content that offers social value—something that will work in group problem-solving experiences. I believe the L&D community will put this new medium to good use.