CES 2015: Are The Wheels Coming Off the VR Hype Bus?

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

The wheels on the bus have gone round and round from CES to GDC to E3 -- every tech show acronym you can think of -- and back again. But here's the problem with hype machines: the longer you keep them running, the harder it is to keep them running.

Such is the case with virtual reality, which had another big year as the Coming Attraction at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Right next to all the smart home technology which electronics manufacturers hope we will lose out minds over.

Let's be clear: the potential for a virtual reality revolution remains an exciting prospect. There are still millions of people who have yet to experience the state of the art in VR tech. The state of the art itself is constantly evolving, with some major announcements this past week by Oculus VR -- the company that got everyone talking about VR after more than a decade of slumber -- that address the audio component of VR.

As any filmmaker or video game creator can tell you audio can make or break a experience that we primarily think of as visual.

Yet you can only stay excited about a nascent technology for so long, and signs of VR fatigue have begun to set in amongst the tech press.

This bit from The Verge's Adi Robertson stands out as a red flag on where the technocrati narrative on VR is likely to head:

That's the problem with much virtual reality. After years of experimentation, we've found something that undeniably works: short visual spectacles like a visit to Iceland or a song from a Paul McCartney concert. And unfortunately, that thing is both difficult to monetize and almost entirely passive.

Robertson says this in the context of a larger piece that puts the spotlight on VR's problem with a native input system. Traditional video game controllers are fine for gamers who can work their paws around one while blindfolded. That's the real trick with VR, after all: you can't see what your real hands are doing when you've got the goggles on.

Input is one issue, and the other is the explosion of interest -- and money -- that's come out of Hollywood. It's no accident that the first developer's conference for Oculus VR was held just steps away from where the Academy Awards are handed out. There are skunkworks teams all over Los Angeles, inside and out of the studio system, who are trying to figure out how to get virtual reality to be part of their ecosystem.

The first stop has been promotional material for feature films and television shows. Guests at South By Southwest were wowed by a trip up Game of Thrones' "Wall" which was created by the FX powerhouse Framestore. In some ways that was just baby steps, but since it was a big success -- at least in terms of word of mouth -- we've seen even more in that vein. From a tour of the spaceship in Interstellar to an experience designed for Fox Searchlight's Oscar hopeful Wild.

As awesome as these can be for a few moments, and they are, Robertson is right to be concerned about the lack of meaty experiences.

VR faces a chicken and the egg problem right now, and the longer it takes for consumer versions of this technology to hit the shelves the more pronounced that conflict becomes. There's no reason to build anything beyond a proof of concept for either a game or a cinematic VR experience when you can't make any money of it. (Let's not even get into the motion sickness issues that the prototype gear has.)

So what we have is lots of short form content that begins to rough out what the issues with making VR experiences are. Conventional wisdom is forged ("You can't do a hard cut in VR.") and then is tossed out the window a few months later ("But I just did!"). The actual strengths and weaknesses of the medium won't really be known for decades. If VR can get out of the crib, that is.

What is clear, at present, is that someone is going to have to bite the bullet and announce some serious, long-form VR content soon or the cultural narrative is going to shift away from "Next Big Thing" straight into "Furby" territory.

For those of us who are excited about the artistic possibilities unlocked by VR, that moment can't come soon enough.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.