#178: Road to VR’s Ben Lang on the grassroots growth of the VR industry, SVVRCon 2015, & marketing VR

Ben LangBen Lang has been covering the VR ecosystem for The Road to VR since 2011, which is before the Oculus Rift kickstarter even launched in 2012. I had a chance to interview Ben at last year’s Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference 2014, which was really the first large consumer VR conference. So it was nice to be able to catch up at SVVRCon again to reflect upon how much the VR industry has grown over the last year, but also where he sees VR is headed.

Over the course of 2 years, the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality meetup has gone from a monthly meetup of 60-120 people to the San Jose Convention Center with over 1400 attendees from around the world. It’s only been about a year since Oculus released the DK2, and since that time Ben hasn’t spotted a DK1 at any VR-focused event.

Ben says that the enthusiasm about VR from the community is palpable, and that it’s important to remember that this popular resurgence of VR was catalyzed by a grassroots movement of people who wanted to make it happen. It was a corporate marketing push, but it started with people on the ground believing in the potential of this medium, and evangelizing it to their friends.

It’ll be very soon when consumers will be able to purchase a VR system that previously would have cost then tens of thousands of dollars. But yet, there will still need to be a grassroots sharing of VR on a one-to-one basis. Ben says that having a VR advocate to share their enthusiasm of VR is part of the transformative impact of having your first VR experience. People aren’t necessarily seeking out their first VR experience, but instead it’s coming from recommendations from other people that they know.

Marketing VR is a challenging problem because overhyping the potential of VR can actually have a negative backlash of setting the expectations too high. One example of this is the Samsung ad advertising the Marvel Avengers VR experience by Framestore that shows all sorts of hand-tracking, implicit haptic feedback, and interactive room-scale immersion that the Gear VR — or any consumer-level VR equipment — is capable of doing today.

Ben advocates using truth in advertising as a long-term strategy to grow the market, rather than using overhyped promises that are going to cause people to become disillusioned and disappointed about what VR is actually capable of. VR is a hard to convey through a 2D medium, and so the best way to demonstrate the power of VR is to have an actual experience of this immersive medium.

As for the future, Ben sees that there’s a lot of potential for VR experiences that make you feel different emotions. He cites some of the experiences that VRSE.works have created that get people tuned into their emotions, and that there’s a huge opportunity for more of these types of experiences.

He also sees a huge potential to extend fictional worlds that we have emotional connections to from various stories. It could just be either a meditative, emotional, scary, or creepy experience that you have to within an environment that is inspired by your favorite book or movie could be really powerful. Storytelling in VR is going to go to the next level when we are able to have interactive conversations with characters driven by AI.

Finally, Ben hopes that the VR community can maintain the tight-nit and collaborative nature even when there may be a lot of competition for the same dollars.

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