When we first got Google’s virtual reality headset at my house, called the Google Daydream, I can’t say I was too excited. But then I tried it. I downloaded BBC’s The Turning Forest, grabbed the controller, and put on the headset. A man who sounded vaguely like Martin Freeman narrated a fairytale-like story that took place in a beautiful digital forest. The short tale is complete with a fantastical beast, an interactive forest, and all tied together with an entertaining plot. It got me thinking: what’s traditional book publishing going to do with this technology, if anything?
Ever since Facebook bought virtual reality and tech company Oculus for a staggering $2 billion in 2014, virtual reality, or VR, has remained at the forefront for tech nerds, engineers, and investors. The key word here is investors. $1.2 billion was invested in VR in Q1 of 2016 alone.
Before we move on, a quick background on this technology.
- Oculus announced their plans for Rift, their VR headset in 2012.
- Google Cardboard, a VR viewer literally made of cardboard, was released in 2014 and is still available from the Google Store for $15. It works with virtually any smartphone.
- Giroptic, the first VR camera, received full funding on Kickstarter on July of 2014. Consumers can now order this camera directly from their website.
- YouTube (a Google-owned entity) launched 360 degree videos on their site in March of 2015. (Users do not need a VR headset to enjoy these videos.)
- In November 2015, The New York Times sent 1.2 million Google Cardboard devices to their subscribers to promote their own VR channel.
- Rift was released it in May of 2016 with an introductory price of $599.
- Google’s Daydream VR viewer was released last November for $79. It requires certain Android phones to work.
This timeline shows that VR accessibility is ramping up. While some VR viewers – like the Rift – carry a hefty price tag, the Google Cardboard can either be made at home or purchased for $15 with no shipping directly from the Google store. Beyond the viewer, all any user needs is a smartphone. That means content creators have work to do. In an interview with Engadget, co-founder of the aptly named Virtual Reality Company Robert Stromberg talked about the participatory aspect of storytelling in VR content: “It’s kind of a hybrid – a cross between observer and a participant.” One of Stromberg’s first major projects was in connection with book-turned-film The Martian. Stromberg feels as though there’s a place for longform narrative in VR settings. “The Martian started out as a 12-minute experience, which ended up being 20 to 28 minutes depending on what you did with the interactive component. What we realized is that people didn’t have a problem in an environment for that long.” Interesting that he brings up in an environment since, after all, any VR experience is going to be a solitary one. No matter how interactive it is, it’s something the user does alone.
Here is where I see some of the unique overlap of VR and book publishing, because what else is a uniquely solitary form of entertainment? Reading a book. Last fall, Dan Berkowitz wrote for Digital Book World how filmmakers are drawn to VR but realize “the hurdles and the possibilities in how they are able to create and tell stories…movie-going tends to be a communal experience, whereas watching a film on a VR headset is a singular experience.” Berkowitz goes on to surmise that perhaps readers are the exact type of person to best enjoy VR as they’re both solo entertainment experiences.