How Virtual Reality’s Diffusion is Different

A sophisticated Virtual Reality (VR) experience has the body and mind believing that an event has been lived, not imagined. A paralyzed child can put on a headset and walk anywhere they please. The public can view a news story and sit with a family of refugees as they eat dinner, attend school and try to maintain resilience in a life turned upside down. Cyber therapy is an emerging field where one already powerful virtual experience allows patients to reduce pain to the degree of a dose of morphine. And just two words for kids who will see dramatic changes in education — field trips. Any civilization. Any location. Every opportunity.

VR is forever changing storytelling and the definition of real-life experience. As a global culture, we have never had the capacity VR gives us to learn, feel, empathize and understand. So many astonishing VR scenarios are occurring now, all before the first consumer headset is even released. The range and depth that VR brings to humans warrants documentation. How will this medium proliferate? How do we make sense of its capabilities, even as they rapidly change?

While VR is a buzzword, it has taken the technology decades to proliferate from the gaming world. 2016 marks the release of the first consumer VR headset. The Oculus Rift is ready to ship Q1, and we are already hearing about and experiencing content in diverse verticals — news, education, healthcare, entertainment. To say that VR’s diffusion into the mainstream is happening ‘fast’ isn’t totally accurate. But VR’s diffusion process is different, and its magnitude has the potential to change the way we assess how new technologies become convention.

To understand the process of adoption, a quick foray into diffusion theory… Diffusion of Innovations (DOI) is an established model to explain the spread of an idea, product or service within a social system. Resulting from a meta-analysis of 500+ studies across disciplines examining examples of widespread adoption, Everett Rogers developed a formal model and wrote the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. Many editions and riffs on the model later, DOI remains highly relevant and widely used today.

Pared down, the model says that adoption follows a typical pattern, involving 5 key players:

  • Innovators — those who use an innovation first
  • Early Adopters — typically key opinion leaders who try the innovation early, confirm/reject its viability, then talk about it among their social network
  • Early Majority — users who listened to the early adopters and accepted the innovation. About 30% of society have adopted; mainstreaming is underway
  • Late Majority — another third of society has adopted and the innovation is in widespread use
  • Laggards — the last remaining segment to adopt. Many in this group are forced to adopt when old products phase out

The tipping point falls at the juncture between early adoption and early majority, where 15–30% of society has accepted and begun using the innovation.

A major tenet of DOI theory is that two key forces move an innovation to the tipping point — mass media and one’s personal social network. In most cases, we hear what the mass media have to say, then have a period of time to confirm or deny it with advice from our social systems.

Previously revolutionizing innovations show that social systems have greater influence on adoption than do the mass media. Take the iPhone. Most of us are unaware of the years of development behind the smartphone concept (so is the case for most emerging technologies), so we start the diffusion clock at the point where the first major smartphone manufacturer, Apple, enters the market. Over about an 18 month period, iPhones started showing up among friends and colleagues, and many had the classic reaction that mitigates adoption — uncertainty. Is it easy to use? Will I look weird if I get one this soon? Is it worth the cost? What purpose(s) will it serve?

As we got hold of phones to try, and saw more people in our circles answering the questions above and losing the uncertainty, the tipping point arrived. Undoubtedly, Apple’s singular ad campaign efforts were also a strong factor. It was fast. And we’re feeling that velocity again with VR in 2015–2016. Rogers says that learning underlies the pattern a diffusion takes. The difference is that with VR, content and format are being created so rapidly that we have little time to explore, learn and discuss it with our network, which makes it harder to predict widespread adoption.

The Tipping Point for VR is a Moving Target

Mass Media and Early Release Dates Are Trumping Personal Networks

Two key factors are muddying the waters for VR diffusion:

  1. The mass media — more so than personal networks — are driving awareness
  2. Developers are releasing VR headsets, app viewers and content earlier in the life cycle, instead of waiting for iterative improvements to be made

To understand where we are in adoption, we look to the early adopters — the group responsible for jumping on board with an innovation, and if they like it, talking it up among their social networks. They are typically key opinion leaders who have pull and clout in their social systems (the ones who were holding the iPhones first). This is where VR throws a bit of a wrench into our ability to find the dot on the curve. Who are the early VR adopters? Are any of them likely to be in our immediate social circles?

The early adopters of VR are primarily global giants in the news and entertainment industries— not your neighbors in the know. VR is being adopted and invested in first by engines in the corporate world. Facebook purchased Oculus, recognizing the value of VR beyond gaming. Disney backed Jaunt (a $66 million venture) to bring VR to Hollywood, and Littlstar to bring 360° video to Apple TV. The New York Times shipped over 1 million Google Cardboard headsets to its print subscribers last November.

November 5, 2015 NY Times Issue Includes Free Google Cardboard & Their Own VR Viewing App

November 5, 2015 NY Times Issue Includes Free Google Cardboard & Their Own VR Viewing App

These are not entities with whom we can have personal conversations about VR, but they speak on VR’s viability via their willingness get in the ring first. Sure, we can choose to trust FB, Disney or the NY Times or not, but inarguably the mass media are influencing our knowledge and decision-making further and faster than our interpersonal networks can. The more we see VR as mainstreamed, the quicker our collective uncertainty reduces*.November 5, 2015 NY Times Issue Includes Free Google Cardboard & Their Own VR Viewing App

How is uncertainty reduced? Clever priming tactics are appearing with greater frequency every day. Soon after the NYT issue The Displaced came out — the story featuring the life of refugee children from different countries — viewable in VR, other indicators of proliferation have appeared. As this article is being written, new examples of VR as ubiquitous are coming on the scene. By giving us the perception that VR is already at the tipping point, it makes the dot on the curve a moving target. Are we there yet? If we asked our social network right now how often, if at all, they have experienced VR in any context, we would likely be far off from a tipping point. That is, perhaps some in our network have heard of it, used it, and are talking about it favorably, but the majority are still uninformed and without motivation to adopt.

The mass media present a different story. The NYT Cardboard distribution was a seminal event in the diffusion process. This news agency is acting as an influencer. A key opinion leader. A change agent. By giving the technology to over a million people to try, it has more power to move the dial than we can achieve in our own social systems. This distribution has started the VR conversation in earnest. The next time we ask our social network about VR, many more will have tried Cardboard or the Times app.

One short film noir in a series of Mini ads. Mini assumes we have, or are willing to get a VR app and headphones to view their ads. They also offer free Google Cardboard viewers in order to “explore new directions in communications.”

One short film noir in a series of Mini ads. Mini assumes we have, or are willing to get a VR app and headphones to view their ads. They also offer free Google Cardboard viewers in order to “explore new directions in communications.”

Assumptions of ubiquity are being made before many of the early adopters have a firm understanding of what VR is and what it can do. Mini and others are using VR to bolster brand awareness and to convey an edginess that says ‘we want to be among the first to go there.’ VR content comes in many types — short form, long form, social, mobile, web, consumer-generated (think YouTube VR). Throw in augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), ads and a range of interactivity and it’s hard for the general population to have an intelligent conversation.

The other factor muddling the diffusion pattern is rapid content development coupled with early iteration releases. VR doesn’t wait for the perfect UX/UI to introduce what’s new. How does rapid release affect diffusion if those who had their first experience with VR on Google Cardboard, or a mobile viewing app, valuate the concept and tell their social system about it? Will they be more or less willing to try the other VR experiences that are currently available, and the many that are just around the corner? We’ll need hindsight to answer those questions.

For VR’s nascency, it is surprising that there already exists a good, better, and best product line. VR viewers have different compatibilities and fidelities. Lens, eye tracking and trackpad characteristics offer different experiences. For example, 360 apps and Google Cardboard are there for a basic, yet still pretty mind-blowing inaugural VR experience for almost no spend. Better and best are headsets with built-in inertial measurement units (IMUs) to improve motion, orientation and gravitational detection. In the content realm, there is animation, news, travel, teaching, psychotherapy, archiving, sports, ad/branding. Some companies are being advised not to create VR content just to check off the box. The feeling of missing out on a movement has arrived, and we have begun to look at fit and relevance to determine what content is optimal in VR. Perhaps one of the most interesting hallmarks of VR’s diffusion story will be the release-as-you-go approach.

Documenting The Trajectory

The fact that the mass media are driving change more so than personal networks could create a cart before the horse diffusion path. How does this look in the long-term, and does it matter that we as consumers have less time to consider the merits of this technology before it becomes a lifestyle convention? The case of VR diffusion will be an interesting retrospective. As investors scramble to valuate VR, social scientists, researchers and marketers find it hard to predict the tipping point that is being moved by forces larger than our personal network.

The questions raised here are not dismal for the investor or the consumer. On the contrary, VR will likely be another example of how innovation can coexist with, and even enhance what came before. We panicked in the past that video would kill the radio star. Instead, radio exists in some of its traditional format, and a complementary form — the podcast — emerged alongside it. VR is unlikely to stamp out movie theaters, TV or computing conventions. Time will reveal where VR shines. Imagine cherry picking the best surgeon, professor or therapist to assist or teach us virtually. Or the empathy factor in experiencing people, places and events as if we were there. VR could be a key player in helping the world understand disparate cultures and ideology, so that we can work with instead of against each other. The potential for social good is vast, provocative and timely.

As a graduate student working with Ev Rogers on DOI in the ’90s, I can say that he would have treated the case of VR diffusion as most imperative. This article is one of many nods I give to my mentor and friend. Without a doubt, VR would have had him digging into the diffusion model from every angle.

*Samsung did release a previous version of Gear, in 2014, called the Innovator’s Edition. It was meant for developers and ‘early adopters,’ but was sold in Best Buy. The hype around the Oculus Rift 2016 release is tenfold that of 2014.