We’re going to be talking a lot about VR and immersive media over the coming months; a set of tools, a platform and an approach that we believe in. And while the ever increasing speed of life, particularly technological evolution, often leads to things being put on the extinction watchlist at their point of conception, we believe reports of its premature demise, such as ‘The VR Cycle Is Dead’ reported in TechCrunch, are much exaggerated and are often neglecting to acknowledge the power of the tool for specific markets.

With the mad dash to accelerate the cycle of ‘innovate, disrupt and progress’ there is a danger that we fail (forwards) to fully realise the potential of things. In fact much of the value of an innovation comes from the quiet settlers not the noisy pioneers. We are firm believers in the power of mixed reality and immersive media, but like any tool it only works when used for the right job. Teeth are great for chewing but not so good for opening bottles. Over the coming weeks at Contented Brothers, we’ll be channelling our collective energy into exploring the state of the industry and reporting back on the most interesting uses. And perhaps if we get drunk and belligerent enough, where we think it’s being misused.

But first a little historical adventure. If we’re questioning the relevance and value of immersive media going forward, let’s take a look back at how it’s fared in the history books...

I would have said history lesson but I’m a little hazy on some of the dates and facts so feel free to use it as a dinner table anecdote but don’t include it in your homework. The “first-date-stamping” of things is a serious matter in scholastic circles and VR is no exception. Often when people talk about VR they will look to shock their audience out of its torpor by dropping in an unexpectedly early date to mark its inception: for instance the ‘Sensorama’ simulation machine of the 1950s is sometimes heralded at a start point. The speaker sits back and basks in the satisfying gasps from the audience, “but we had no idea”, “who would have thought such a thing” and “such an engrossing contrarian.” Anyway, I think these contrarians are feeble amateurs lacking ambition (I don’t really, I think they’re great but I’m looking to position myself as the contrarian's’ contrarian).

I would like to paint you a much earlier, gaudier and altogether more regal picture. In the early 17th century King James ushered in the golden age of the masque. These private entertainments were often written by poet, Ben Johnson, with (what we would now think of as) creative direction and production design by renowned architect Inigo Jones. A masque was courtly privilege, an invitation-only elite extravaganza. They were often performed only once. Unique to the audience and unique to the performers. Importantly, for the purposes of my argument, a masque, as opposed to a play, is written for and performed by its intended audience, with the roles carefully designed to reflect aspects of the casts’ aristocratic personas blurring the line between performance. It was a private intimate experience rather than a public performance. Thus the masque was designed to blow the mind of the participants who were literally in the experience.

Occasionally during the masque there was a thing called an ‘antesupper’. The tables would be loaded with a decadent and sumptuous Jacobean feast (think whole dolphins and roast peacocks). The guests, a rarefied and small group (high-value in today’s terms), would parade around the food to admire it, but not eat it. Let’s overlook the morals of this form of entertainment that was popular at a time when famines were a regular break from the monotony of plagues. The important thing is that this was a multi-sensory simulation of the coming meal for a core audience of active agents in the performance, participants whose actions formed a key part of the experience, even changing the outcome.

This tortured point then sets out the stall for our view of VR and hopefully moves the date for the first VR experience forward by 400 years or more. Immersive experiences have always been around and are powerful things when done well. Over the next few months we’ll be outlining the areas that interest us in more detail and with less pretentious waffle. Alternatively check out my next post where I will be forcing a comparison between Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and MTV’s ‘Just Tattoo of Us’.