The Killer App of Virtual Reality Is Already Here But No One Pays Attention Yet.

Summary: The most valuable feature of Virtual Reality as a medium is the ability to focus the human brain and direct 100% of user attention to a particular input. In the digital economy of mass distraction, attention is the scarcest asset. Once people realise that VR headsets and VR apps are ‘attention amplifying’ devices, this feature alone can make VR worth billions. Especially in the ‘attention hungry’ industries such as sales, marketing, education, training.

Virtual Reality is quickly approaching an inflection point but it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. The social media buzz around VR emphasises gaming and entertainment but rest assured that VR will be bigger than that. Your relationship with digital information is mediated through rectangle screens of standardised sizes. And VR is going to liberate information from that rectangle you’re looking at right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of VR as a next-generation medium and how the phrase – ‘medium is the message’ applies to VR. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan in his seminal book ‘Understanding Media’. McLuhan argues that when analysing a medium we shouldn’t look at its content but at the inherent characteristics of a medium itself.

Quote from Wikipedia:

“McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as an example. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”[1]

More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example — the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.”

So what is the ‘message’ of VR then? What is the key characteristic of this tech that is content agnostic?

My personal ‘A-ha’ moment came after one of Oculus Rift demos I gave to a C-level executive from a media industry. His comment was something along these lines:

“Wow. Usually my mind is running with thoughts about emails, phone calls, meetings, to-do lists. But this experience got my full focus and attention. I was present in the moment, totally there.”

That single comment made me suddenly realise how powerful & valuable VR technology might become as an ‘attention amplifying’ device.

VR shuts you off completely from anything else – and whatever manifests in VR – becomes a center of your attention. This effect is so powerful that VR experience can even decrease the amount of experienced pain for patients during burn wound treatment. (Source: http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/vrpain/ )

Quote from the study:

“Pain perception has a strong psychological component. The same incoming pain signal can be interpreted as painful or not, depending on what the patient is thinking. Pain requires conscious attention.

The essence of VR is the illusion users have of going inside the computer-generated environment. Being drawn into another world drains a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process pain signals. Conscious attention is like a spotlight. Usually it is focused on the pain and wound care.

We are luring that spotlight into the virtual world. Rather than having pain as the focus of their attention, for many patients in VR, the wound care becomes more of an annoyance, distracting them from their primary goal of exploring the virtual world.”

So if VR has the ability to direct our attention away from pain, just imagine how impactful it will be across all the other industries – training, education, marketing but also healthcare & well being.

Instead of swallowing a relaxation pill, download an app?

Going to a client meeting to showcase your latest work? Forget your iPad, give your client a short VR experience and present your video on a giant screen.

Want to study for a while and make sure you absorb the learning material more effectively? Put on your VR goggles and sink into the experience.

Because with the ever expanding amount of information out there, one thing remains constant – our daily amount attention. And as competition for our attention is getting tougher in the ‘rectangular media’ and as we become more distracted with media, whoever changes their playing field to VR is going to win big time.

Smartphones combined with the Internet gave us an unprecedented access to information but at the same time made us distracted, unfocused and anxious.

My prediction is that VR tech will give us something equally valuable – the ability to laser focus our attention at will.

People will soon discover hidden and unanticipated feature of VR. It can become a ‘killer app’ in itself. But no one pays attention to it…yet.

This is a fascinating topic and I’ll be blogging about this more soon.

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