When will websites go virtual?

There was a piece in the Financial Times last week about virtual reality (may be behind a paywall). The author had been at a dinner for innovators given by Wired magazine in the UK, at which they were asked what the big thing for 2016 would be. Almost all of them said virtual reality.

Virtual world games like Minecraft are massive, 3D films are now normal – as are 3D televisions, and Facebook has spent $2bn on buying the company that makes Oculus Rift headsets, which are apparently wonderful. One of the odder fashions in the last few years is to have ever bigger headsets and mobile phones; wearing a VR headset won’t look quite as nerdy as it used to. 

What, you may wonder, has this to do with websites, corporate communications and the sort of things we concern ourselves? Well, whenever I hear about VR resurgent, I think about a little book I wrote in 1993 called Multimedia: Now and down the line. I had talked to future thinkers and technologists about the ‘digital revolution’ that was just coming into view. Most of it was about CD-Roms, but the ‘down the line’ bit was how anything digital could be pushed down telephone lines – as was already happening with CompuServe, AOL and the like. It even had the word ‘internet’ in it (once), but the thing people were getting excited about was virtual reality.

The great thing about having a theory but lacking any way of putting it into practice is that it can be pushed to its furthest extremes. My interviewees did not have to worry about bandwidth or computer power when they speculated how we would be able to take advantage of digital possibilities. They all decided that we would be going shopping with VR headsets – traipsing down a virtual supermarket aisle, picking up our virtual shopping and putting it in a virtual  basket. When we were in a meeting at work, we would sit opposite people who were geographically thousands of miles away and try not to put our hands through them (that would be rude). And when we were in bed – well, there was some stuff on teledildonics I’ll gloss over.

But of course what actually happened was that nice Mr Berners-Lee thought up the World Wide Web, which actually worked with then current technology, and we set about shopping and meeting using only two dimensions. It has worked rather well; so do we need a third one? Does it have any business, as opposed to entertainment, value? 

If you watched the rise and falling back of Second Life http://secondlife.com, which was 2D but still virtual, you may well say no. But one of the main things that stopped it taking off was practicality: few people had the computer power or bandwidth to make it work properly. It’s still going, and I’ve been playing with it – it’s certainly a lot less frustrating than it used to be, with better equipment.

There is some business activity on it, though most if it seems to be about Second Life itself – I found myself at the Justitia Legal Resource Village for lawyers ‘interested in issues around Second Life’. In its heyday, I recall, Reuters had its own reporters on it and BNP Paribas had a recruitment centre. No more. It is in a niche, well out of the main stream.

But if, as the FT and all those clever innovators say, VR will be the big thing for 2016, it’s surely worth pondering how companies and organizations might be able to use it. 

Here are some thoughts:

  • Second Life, or something similar, could once again attract the interest of corporates. I did like BNP Paribas’s virtual recruitment centre. You could go up to someone else on the site and ask what they thought of the company – anonymously (more or less). There are ways to do that on various forms of social media, but being able to ‘see’ the other person was, I thought, quite powerful. 
  • Facebook buying Oculus Rift says more about the linkage of social media and VR; watch this three dimensional space.
  • What can we do with games, the big earner now? I plead total ignorance here. I am told there is product placement in games, but that’s about all I know. But I couldn’t get into my own living room for several years because my son was murdering monsters. Maybe he could be looking for a job now instead?
  • Websites could go virtual. Bits of them already are, we might say, with ‘virtual tours’ – I quite like Queen of England’s tours. I’ve seen a few ‘campus tours’ in Careers sections. Surely opportunities for more.
  • Research and development could be another area ripe for potential – virtual spaces where partners from across the world could work together to create sophisticated 3D prototypes, for instance. 
  • Set up a virtual supermarket. Let people traipse down a virtual supermarket aisle, picking up virtual shopping and putting it in a virtual  basket. Back to 1993. You never know.

- David Bowen