Virtual reality: how and when will it change our lives?

"I think virtual reality will be the most transformative platform of the next 20 years or so," notes Mark Suster, one of Los Angeles’ most prolific tech investors. "And a great deal of it will happen in LA, there’s already a lot of very exciting things going on here in the space."

When Mark Suster makes a prediction it’s probably a wise idea to take note. As a two-time entrepreneur, angel investor, partner at Upfront Ventures (the city’s oldest venture capital firm) and a highly prominent tech blogger, he has a track record that most would struggle to match.

Now while it doesn’t take a tech genius to predict that virtual reality is probably going to have a profound impact on our way of life, it does take one to identify exactly how this will play out. But before we get onto that, I was keen to hear why Suster was so confident that LA would be the epicentre of it all.

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LA as the home of virtual reality

"Virtual reality favours LA as you need a combination of good technical skills, writers, special effects, makeup, costumes, storytellers and people who can figure out the brand integration in order to monetise – LA has all of that.

"The big hole is that we just don’t have the people here who have seen scale, but three to five years from now and that has all changed. Not just because LA has been rising up in the past five years but soon enough you’ll have a whole generation of ex Tinder, Snapchat and Riot Games people in the market."

This would, of course, be great news for LA, with latest estimates pointing towards the industry hitting $150 billion in revenue by 2020. The city already boasts the likes of Oculus Rift, SpherePlay, Vrse, Survios, Emblematic Group, Wevr and VNTANA in its first virtual reality cohort. So how long will it be until we see the technology being developed by these start-ups move into everyday use?

"To quote Bill Gates, people always overestimate the impact of technology in a three year time horizon and underestimate the impact of it in a ten year time horizon," explains Suster. "That is largely true, so virtual reality will have a lot of bumps and starts; the hardware won’t be quite right, people will get nausea and the content won’t be ideal to start with as you need to stimulate the market first before being able to create a feedback loop."

Entertainment, health and travel

So once the feedback loop is up and running, how and where does Suster expect to see the biggest advances?

"Looking at the latest technology on something like Oculus Rift blows your mind, it’s hard to appreciate how powerful it is before you experience it. I watched a scene from that film Wild, with Reese Witherspoon. She walks up to you as she’s hiking and you’re on this vantage point where you can see for miles, looking at the vast wilderness.

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"She sits on the rock next to you, a few feet away, and it feels so real that I struggled to look at her as I felt like a pervert. Looking at someone who’s right in front of you and not have them interact with you makes you feel creepy. I was like 'oh Jesus Christ, I need to take off these glasses'. You can see how it’s going to totally transform storytelling."

Yet it’s not just the classic LA industries like entertainment that Suster believes will be transformed by the democratisation of this new tech, but other sectors which you may not instantly associate the city as having a big say in.

"For sure, it goes further than that - think of the impact it can have on the health sector. My father has Parkinson’s, imagine if he was able to go take a walk on the beach and feel what it’s like. I really think it’s going to change the way medicine works and how people are cared for.

"In terms of travel, imagine if my father could hold his grandchildren without having to get on an airplane across the world. Which leads to the question, if it was like you were right there with them then would you ever get on the plane? I’m not sure you would. Why would you? In three years this won’t happen, but in 10 or 12 years we’ll see it having a big impact. I think it will transform air travel, car travel and where we choose to live and work."

One area where the adoption has been strong so far is in marketing initiatives, something which Stefan Pernar, managing director at Virtual Reality Ventures, expects to increase – along with more meaningful uses of the technology.

"What we have seen over the past years, since Facebook's big investment into Oculus and the subsequent investments of all large tech companies with the exception of Apple, is that particularly the real estate and tourism industries have invested into VR to enhance their business processes. Other industries have mainly ventured into VR as a marketing or early innovation play," explains Pernar. "Where we do see early adoption beyond marketing is in the healthcare and training space, with a number of large players beginning to leverage consumer VR technology to enact meaningful change to how they do business."

The dangers of virtual reality

This all sounds very exciting, but for many people – myself included – the increasing presence of technology in every aspect of our lives feels somewhat depressing. My conversation with Mark Suster had taken place in his Santa Monica office and the thought that those sort of physical encounters would no longer actually take place, no matter how convincing the experience, felt a little sad.

"You can always see two sides to every coin. Imagine that when radio first came out, and I don’t think you can deny the progress radio brought us, I have no doubt there were people saying 'I can’t believe you’re listening to this instead of sitting and talking to the family'. And yet, you probably see radio as pretty benign," points out Suster. "Most of technology is overwhelmingly positive, then we spend our time trying to figure out the negatives."

While striking some notes of caution, Pernar was also keen to emphasise the many positive impacts which he agrees will come with the widespread use of virtual reality.

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"VR addiction could become a real problem. That being said new media from novels to first person shooters have always seen abuse by a small fraction of society and in the mid-19th century women have actually been institutionalised for 'excessive novel reading'. Overall I am certain that VR will be a net positive for society.

"Games will become so engaging and interactive that those who play them who would have traditionally been closer to a pasty overweight couch potato will become physically and socially stimulated on whole new levels. Eventually bulky, tethered and isolating VR headsets will become trendy and unobtrusive augmented reality (AR) glasses that fit your prescription. The only reason why we are sitting on desks all the time is because that is where input, output and communication devices have been."

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