How Will Virtual Reality Move into the Mainstream?

Will VR ever move into the mainstream? We think it will, and this is how it will probably happen.

Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo.

We’re at the very early stages of VR and its possibilities. This we know. Although gamers have been exploring the technology for several decades. And computer scientists (some via games) have been squirreled away in labs, coding and creating fantastic other-worldly experience – whether they’re art, educational tools or simply darned cool toys for re-imagining anything you can think of.

At an awe-inspiring evening of VR exhibits at Goldsmith’s College the other week, we were trying to work out who, amongst the gathering of VR gurus and geeks, could claim they were there at the birth of VR – and when was that? *

In his keynote, Dream Reality Interactive’s Dave Ranyard recalled Nintendo’s Virtual Boy – a very red piece of kit, released in the 1990s. But despite Nintendo’s seeming midas touch at the time, Virtual Boy, was never a commercial hit.

Beyond gaming, VR was then, and still is a niche product. Yes, VR headsets are everywhere, even on offer at the petrol pump, but mainstream adoption beyond gaming is a dream that seems a long way off.

Will VR ever really move into the mainstream – and if so, how?

Here’s a theory.

Simulators have long been essential in some industries, airline pilot training for instance. But they’re very expensive. There are other situations where a simulator type experience would be hugely useful, but so far, too expensive, lugubrious or inappropriate to consider. VR could be the solution.

When I was working on Amsterdam’s VR Days conference last autumn, I had a fascinating conversation with Arnout van Raaij at Dutch construction company, BAM. A year on from their first encounter with VR in 2015, BAM has integrated the technology into their workflow. It means that every person involved on a build can visit the building – virtually. The sparks can see where the sockets would be, the plumber can check the piping and the architect can try out some light effects. And the client gets to walk around their new building before a single foundation has been dug. BAM reckons their approach would benefit the entire construction industry.

Where real-life training is a matter of life and death, VR is an invaluable tool: training surgeons to carry out minute, detailed operations, with no risk to a human. Or war zone preparation where charity workers, journalists or the military no longer need to deal in paper-based or imagined hypothetical situations, now they can be there – virtually.

For now, these kinds of VR uses are still only taking baby steps. The opportunities are there – but they’re limited.

The game-changer will be when the huge potential for VR training and simulator applications is realized. Then VR headsets become common in the workplace – maybe even in every workplace. And once that happens, VR headsets will come home in backpacks and briefcases. They become normalized – integrated into our lives at home, like smartphones or ipads. We’ll use them to check in with friends, do homework or join a meeting.

Imagine limbering up with your favourite football team instead of your usual workout routine at the gym.  Or dropping in on a cookery class with a top celebrity chef as you start to plan dinner.  Or reaching for your headset, instead of painkillers, to take away the pain when you feel a headache coming on. Or popping into your virtual spa, for a ten minute relaxation when you need a quick break…

For now, the ultimate goal of VR developers is to allow you to go somewhere cool, do something amazing and take your friends with you. But, I believe, it’ll only bed into our lives – at work and home – once we start using it for the everyday stuff.

Then the (endless) opportunities become really interesting.


*For the record, there were several claims to the title: ‘the first UK produced VR game’. To avoid legal suits, we’re not going to list the contenders here.  Suffice it to say, they date from the dark ages of gaming, when every developer was a forever-teenager with a translucent skin from too many hours glued to a computer screen in a dim, dingy bedroom…

Our Guide to Immersive Storytelling in Museums

Immersive storytelling is an exciting and memorable way to bring history to life but it can be a daunting challenge. We share some tips for getting it right.

Bringing the past to life is one of the most memorable and exciting ways of interpreting history. And with all the immersive tech now available, helping visitors to feel, smell and breathe the air of historical events is more and more possible.

Binaural audio – with the right concept, script and actors – can trick the brain into believing you have time travelled and are experiencing a new reality – even though the sights around you haven’t changed. Virtual reality can take you anywhere, to be anything, moving through time and space. Haptics bring an extra sensory dimension, smells can be hugely evocative and all of it can be combined to create spine-chillingly powerful effects.

It’s a very exciting prospect. But perhaps a little overwhelming.

There are so many possibilities and so much choice of kit it’s easy to be blinded by the tech and lose sight of what it is you want to achieve and what suits your space.

There are four key mantras that we at PastPorte tend to work by – and live by. They work for us. And we think they’ll work for you too.

1. Keep it simple.

Rarely is the success of your immersive experience going to depend on how much you’ve spent on the kit, how many microphones you’ve used, how many speakers you’ve plugged up or how many projectors you’ve got going.

It can be hard to stick to keeping it simple. Especially when seduced by constant tech innovations.

One of Pastporte’s most successful installations used just two simple resonant speakers, purchased in a domestic high street store, loaded with a pared-back atmospheric soundscape.

Also we try and use silence. Lots of it. The brain gets overstimulated with a constant assault from sophisticated, exciting sounds and starts to regard them as normal. Binaural audio works best if it’s a constant surprise. But to achieve that, the brain almost needs to have forgotten what it sounds like. So, in any story, we build in sections that are silent or low key to create contrast and keep up the surprises. We think that makes an experience more immersive.

2. If there’s something to see, keep your visitors eyes up.

Encouraging visitors to look at a screen and use a multi-media guide is great if there’s nothing to see at your attraction.

But most museums and attractions are all about feasting your eyes on what’s around you – aren’t they? So why would you want to distract from that by asking your visitors to look away from your visual treats and instead, get their eye candy from a screen (especially for kids when their parents are likely to feel they’re too screen-dependent already) ?

If there’s something to look at, let them look at it but augment their experience in other ways. Here too binaural audio can build your experience into a full immersive, time-travelling wonder. Especially if it’s the right audio.

3. Build on your strengths.

Make your artefacts the centre of your immersive story. Turning an artefact into an interactive, immersive exhibit is a neat trick – one we’ve regularly used at PastPorte. Using a gorgeous, if knackered, bellows camera, installed headphones and an AV screen, we transported viewers to Antarctica, 1915. The leather bellows (with associated musty smell), mahogany and brass housing all started to do our work for us – before the viewer had even begun our immersive time travel experience.

A visual, tangible object that can tee up the brain for what is to come adds extra impact. And the added bonus of using an artefact that already feels part of the period and is appropriate in the setting means the whole experience is more integrated yet also more surprising.

4. Content is king.

Whatever approach you choose, and however you choose to deliver it, it’s the content that will make your experience stand out. However great the tech set-up, if the content doesn’t tell the story well, no-one will remember your experience.

Spend time devising the right story and the right approach to telling that story, and constantly review both as you develop the experience. It can be easy to lose sight of the most important thing in amongst the glitz of all that fabulous, shiny kit.

But it’s the content that will live on when the latest tech fashions have come and gone.

Ten Ways to Give Your VR Installation More Impact

Last year, we were lucky enough to get immersed in the world of virtual reality, working on a couple of projects with BBC R&D.

The process of planning, creating and watching the public reaction to our work has proven one thing – successful VR installations are about much more than the content and the technology to deliver it. Audiences need to be intrigued, feel safe and be able to share.

So we decided to share our top tips.

1. Don’t forget about the ‘before’ experience. A sense of anticipation adds to the adventure, just like that time when you were in the queue for the rollercoaster.

2. So….create a scene-setter to help build the before-experience excitement. It doesn’t need to be big or expensive. Something that can work as a tangible tease.

3. Let your viewer sit down. They’re less likely to fall over.

4. Let them have their feet on the floor. It’ll reduce the likelihood of motion sickness.

5. Give them a seat that has a full 360 swivel so they can fully explore your beautifully crafted 360 virtual world.

6. Give them some leg room. That way they’re unlikely to have that awkward moment of bumping knees with a stranger.

7. Create a safe space for them to enjoy the VR. A cubicle/enclosed area that is setup for VR viewing means they can be comfortable reacting and fully immersing themselves without feeling like they’re looking like an idiot.

8. Find somewhere to stash their bags/belongings safely so they’re not distracted from their adventure by worries about having their stuff nicked.

9. Consider introducing smells, haptic (vibrating backpacks, temperature changes) to add extra sensory dimensions.

10. Have a great backdrop or scene for your VR that will be a great selfie/tweet opportunity and get people spreading the word.

If you’re looking for some practical examples of what we mean, have a read of our Turning Forest @Tribeca case study.


An Introduction to Virtual Reality for Museums and Heritage Attractions.

Oculus Rift?  HTC Vive? Google Cardboard? VR? AR? Confused? Read on to have the world of VR unravelled…

Oculus Rift VR

Oculus Rift VR.

By midday on Christmas Day, I’d already ridden a rollercoaster, flown unaided over a bottomless chasm and crept up close to a T-Rex tucking into his lunch.

If you’re making the assumption that I’d hit the mulled wine a little early, you’d be wrong. I’d been sampling the world of virtual reality, using the Google Cardboard I’d bought for my 2 boys (OK, yes, Dad was rather hogging their present.)

2016 is set to be a BIG year for virtual reality with headsets becoming commercially available for Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC-owned Hive and Sony-owned Playstation. And it’s already creating a buzz in our sector with British Museum and the Natural History Museum VR offering virtual reality experiences last year, and a Buckingham Palace VR experience launching on Google Expeditions just last week.

So what precisely is virtual reality? How are the proposed offerings going to differ? And how can you give it a whirl for yourself without getting your hands on one of the prized (and expensive) developers’ kits?

For a definition of virtual reality, I’m going to turn to a rather handy website I found dedicated to the subject ( They defined VR as ‘a three dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person.‘ It’s important to note that virtual reality takes you out of your environment and into a completely new world, not to be confused with augmented reality which digitally enhances your existing environment (that’s the subject for another post.)

The term virtual reality dates back to Jaron Lanier and the Visual Programming Lab in the 1980s (the 1992 film Lawnmower Man was based on Lanier) but certain aspects of virtual reality can be traced back to the 19th century and the first stereoscopic viewer developed by Charles Wheatstone in 1838.

All of the virtual reality offerings that I’m going to talk about are headset based – that is, you strap on a pair of goggles to enter your virtual reality world (vs. say a flight simulator, which is also a type of virtual reality but clearly isn’t headset based). From this base offering, the solutions differ in an attempt to create more realism. Some are purely visual , others bring your hands into the virtual reality world with you so you can manipulate objects, and others allow you to move around (that is, using your own feet rather than a games console controller).

All are striving for the holy grail of ‘sense of presence’, where the experience is so close to how you interact with the real world that you brain tells you you’re actually there. The opposite of this is ‘sense of nausea’ – created by the VR graphics rendering too slowly, creating a mismatch with the motion sensors in your ears and producing the VR equivalent of travel sickness.

OK – so I’m hoping you’ve got a sense of what VR is, and what makes it less virtual and more reality. Let’s take a brief look at the different offerings out there.


Oculus was the company that propelled virtual reality back onto the agenda. Founder by a teenage Palmer Luckey, the instigator of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the company has been Facebook-owned since 2014.

The Oculus Rift headset features 2 high resolution graphic displays (one for each eye, so you get the stereoscopic 3D effect), complete 360 degree head tracking, a 110 degree field of view and over ear headphones for a 3D audio effect. It also comes with a external sensor (to detect your movements), Oculus controller (for moving around and interacting with your VR environment) and an Xbox One controller (because many of the games developed for the Rift will require the controller for movement, shooting etc.)

The Rift is already available for pre-order ($599 if you’re thinking of buying one) and will be shipping at the end of March. The Touch sensors, which will enable users to point, wave, pick up virtual objects with their hands etc won’t be available until next quarter.

You should know that the Rift is a ‘wired’ experience (i.e. your headset will be wired to PC) and you’ll need a high specification PC (8GB of RAM, high specification graphics card) for it to work.

Oculus is the solution for those who want to create a top end VR experience for visitors to their museum or attraction and have a significant budget to invest in the hardware and the content. The Oculus Rift audience is going to be pretty niche initially – due to the investment required to get set up – so even if your experience is made available to download, there aren’t going to be that many people who’ll be doing it. That being said, because premium VR experiences will be rare, you’ll have visitors queueing up to try it out.

HTC Vive

Yes – you’re right, HTC are a primarily a mobile phone manufacturer. They rather took the tech industry by surprise when they announced the Vive at the Game Developers’ Conference last March. It may not have the first mover advantage of the Rift – pre-orders don’t start until 29th February with shipments starting in April – but in one way, the Vive promises to be an even more immersive experience than the Rift. Why? The ability to physically move around in the virtual world.


While the Rift is designed to be primarily a ‘sit down’ device, the Vive comes with laser trackers that allow you to move around in a small space – up to 15 foot by 15 foot, to be precise. As you’ve got a pair of goggles strapped to your face and can’t see the objects around you, it has a ‘chaparone’ mode which brings outlines of those obstacles into your virtual world so you don’t bump into anything.

Other than that, the Vive is very similar to the Rift – same resolution of display, same field of view and a pair of controllers that bring your hands into your virtual world. It will also be a ‘wired’ experience requiring a powerful (and expensive) PC to run effectively.

If you’re offering VR in your museum or attraction, Vive would be a good choice especially if your content works with the concept of visitors moving around a little. Of those that have reviewed Vive and Rift, most rate the former as more realistic experience. However, I suspect it’s audience may be even smaller than that of the Rift – it simply doesn’t have the buzz, awareness and marketing muscle of its Facebook-owned rival.

Sony Playstation VR

This headset will be designed to work with Sony’s Playstation 4. It’s very similar in specification to the Rift and the Vive – a slightly narrower field of view and some rather natty LED’s on the front that remind me of Tron (remember that movie?) The main difference is that many people will already have the hardware – a Playstation 4 – required to use the headset and even if they don’t, it will cost them a fraction of the cost to purchase one of the high spec PCs required to operate the Rift and Vive.


However, because a console isn’t as powerful as a PC, the VR experience isn’t likely to be as ‘premium’ but because it’s more accessible, and selling into an existing community of gamers, I’d expect the Playstation VR to be an early leader in the ‘serious VR’ sector.

If you create a VR experience for Playstation, it may be slightly less premium but the hardware to run it at your museum or attraction is probably going to cost you an awful lot less!

Samsung Gear VR

The final 2 offerings we’re going to talk about – Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard – trade off quality of experience for accessibility as they both turn smartphone into a virtual reality viewer.


The Samsung Gear VR is the more sophisticated of the two. For £90 you get the headset which you put your phone into (it’s important to note that it only works with an S5 Note or S6/S6 Edge/S6 Edge+ at present). The headset itself comes with a touchpad, so you can interact with your virtual world, and it’s own sensors (which you connect to your phone via micro USB) for more sophisticated head tracking than the phone’s own sensors can handle.

Because it uses your phone, it’s an experience completely free of wires, but of course it’s nowhere near as sophisticated as the Vive, Rift or Playstation – primarily because the phone screen can’t deliver the resolution of the purpose built rivals.

That being said, it’s much cheaper hardware wise for you to offer than the 3 premium offerings, and your experience could ‘stretch’ beyond your museum as Gear VR experiences are so easy for people to download (via the Play Store) and try for themselves at home.

Google Cardboard

You can’t get much more accessible than a lump of cardboard that you can buy on Amazon for £9.99 , construct yourself and then can slot your smartphone into to create a virtual reality viewer. This is what I bought for my kids for Christmas and if you’re curious about VR but don’t want to fork out nigh on £1,500 for a top end experience, this is a great way to try it out for yourself.


Bear in mind it’s not going to work with any mobile – your phone needs to have a gyroscope so it can track your head movements. You could also do with c2GB of RAM to handle the software. Once you’ve established your phone is compatible, download Google Cardboard from the Play store to get yourself started and then pick one of any number of Google Cardboard VR experiences also available to download.

You’re not going to get any ‘sense of presence’ with Google but it’s alot of fun and a great introduction to VR.

If you create a cardboard VR experience, the hardware will cost you next to nothing and you can upload your experience to the Play/App Store and have a ready audience willing to download it and try it out.

That’s plenty enough to digest on VR for now. In the next couple of posts Dinah and I will share our experiences with VR – me with cardboard and Samsung Gear and Dinah with Oculus – our thoughts on what makes effective VR experiences and some applications for the museums and heritage sector.