Is this “the year of VR”, when virtual reality comes of age? It’s something I’ve been saying since, oh, the beginning of the year, but it’s also something that I’m sure someone, somewhere has said every year since 1994’s launch of QuickTime VR, 1995’s Nintendo Virtual Boy, and so on. Despite this, in terms of public perception, I think 2016 really will prove to be the most significant year for VR that we’ve ever seen.
We’ve been through many different periods of innovation and technical breakthroughs in VR over the last couple of decades. Flash came along and provided a popular alternative to the relatively niche QuickTime browser plugin. It started crudely, got better, then as mobile became dominant it eventually got dead. Well, ‘dead plugin walking’ at least, all but replaced by HTML5. With the shift to mobile came accelerometer support to move the view as the device is turned, which led to all manner of contraptions to hold a smartphone a couple of inches in front of a user’s face.
Last year Mattel reprised its once-iconic View-Master as a VR device, inspired directly by Google’s launch of the Cardboard VR viewer in 2014. These were both very interesting and important developments, but in a sense they – and the other smartphone-based devices – have also felt like pre-show events. The general public has had to be introduced to the idea that virtual reality is now a... well, a reality. But today, this year, things are starting to really heat up.
One big example: Samsung has started pushing its impressive Gear VR headset as part of its pitch for the new Galaxy S7 smartphone (although the device works well with the S6, S6+, S6 Edge and Note 5 already). I woke up the other day to hear the Gear VR being discussed at length on a current affairs show on BBC Radio 4. But the latest player in the new outward-facing, public-friendly VR trend? I didn’t expect this one: McDonald’s. The fast-food chain is about to launch a version of its Happy Meal box for kids that folds up into a Cardboard-style viewer, complete with lenses – although not with phone, naturally.
McDonald's marketing video: https://youtu.be/bnYg752URcE
It’s only in 14 different restaurants in Sweden at the moment, it’s a run of just 3500 units, and it may not go any further – but it’s getting attention around the world. Adweek just ran a story on this:
So yes, this really is ‘the year of VR.’ This is when it becomes accepted, semi-understood, and seen by mainstream publishers and audiences as a viable alternative media form. As for what we DO with that... well, that’s down to us.