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On 23rd February 2017, the community of AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) professionals and academics descended on Manchester Metropolitan University for the International AR and VR Conference 2017. Here at Social we’re always keen to explore emerging trends in communications technology, and we’re especially interested in what AR and VR might be able to offer our clients, particularly in exhibition and other promotional environments.

Among the various panels and demonstrations, a few consistent themes emerged regarding the challenges that the industry still faces, and the question of just how big a part of the future it can become. Here are some of the key points we picked up while attending the event:

Not everyone is talking about VR

… which might seem like an odd thing to say at an event entirely dedicated to talking about it. But many within the industry are increasingly aware that the conversation around VR is only taking place between those already invested in it. The people who were talking about it two years ago, are the same people talking about it now. The biggest challenge is to open it up to a wider audience.

Content is the key to successful engagement

No matter how impressive the tech, a new audience will only be drawn into using it if the content is there. It’s all too easy for an impressive demonstration of the capabilities of VR tech to be followed with the question of “So what’s next?” The content itself, not just the technology, needs to push boundaries.

VR is still a short-term experience

One of the biggest hurdles for public engagement with VR to overcome is the difficulty inherent in experiencing it over a long period of time – whether that’s down to issues such as motion sickness, or the brain simply not accepting the artificial reality that’s presented to it. BT Sport noted this when demonstrating an immersive football-watching experience: their participants simply couldn’t be expected to watch the game through headsets for the entire two hours! Keynote speaker Dean Johnson, meanwhile, spoke of his desire to someday spend 48 hours entirely in VR – the existing record, at least according to Guinness, is 25.

360 video is a new form of storytelling

And the industry is still learning how to make it work – arguably, nobody has really cracked it yet. It’s not simply a case of presenting an expanded version of existing video forms, but creating something entirely new – pushing boundaries and experimenting. In time, the creation of 360 video should become a specialist skillset in its own right, not merely a subset of video.

You need to engage all the senses for an immersive experience

Virtual Reality is, at present, based almost entirely around visuals and audio. But there are five human senses, not two, and until they’re all engaged by the experience, there will always be a barrier of immersion to overcome. When experimenting with an immersive storytelling experience, academic and filmmaker Sarah Jones and her team discovered that fabricating the smells of a bustling market environment yielded successful results – as did raising the temperature in the room!

“Mixed” reality is still up in the air

Representatives of Microsoft gave an impressive demonstration of their new HoloLens device – a gadget that calls to mind the ill-fated Google Glass, but which the company are keen to stress is not “augmented reality” but “mixed reality”. Even moreso than VR, however, the mixed reality experience is dependent on people being able to get their hands on the tech to use it – and at the moment, a portable computer to wear on the face is simply beyond most. Until there’s a clearly established purpose for the technology – and a way to make it affordable, as Google Cardboard did – then no matter how undeniably impressive it is, the HoloLens may not take off.

Immersion is great for marketing

It’s not hard to see why marketers are keen to see VR take off: as a fully immersive experience, it offers a degree of singular focus that is simply not achievable with practically any other form of media. The immersive experience, focusing the consumer only on what is directly in front of them on the screen, is hugely valuable in forging a memorable connection with a brand or product.

The desire to virtually experience is not a modern phenomenon

While the growth of VR and AR has been somewhat stop-start over the last few years, its pioneers should take heart in one truth – wherever we can’t experience something directly, we will always push to find a way to do so vicariously instead. And this is a desire that even predates digital technology: as early as the mid-19th century, “virtual” visits to museums (in that case, using “stereoscope” technology) have been taking place.

So for all the technical hurdles that still need to be overcome, it’s perhaps an inevitability that sooner or later, we’ll find a way to make it work.