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Virtual Reality Dies in Silos

Earlier this week, Facebook announced the launch of its 360 app, a dedicated platform for consuming VR content. It sounds great, until you get to the part where the app will only be available on Samsung phones for the Gear VR headset (which is part of a partnership with Facebook-owned Oculus). On one hand, this makes perfect sense — of course Facebook wants to drive adoption of the headsets and if VR were a few years down the road, exclusivity would be totally reasonable. But because the technology is still in its infancy, withholding content is a huge mistake — the number one priority, for all parties involved, should be getting 360 videos in front of as many people as possible.

Virtual reality has a huge problem with silos, and that could be what kills it before it even gets off the ground. Because content companies are often providing the funds to create experiences, they want exclusivity on showing them — and again, that makes perfect sense, but doesn’t always translate into the real world. A more collaborative model might mean short-term losses, but it’ll mean long-term gains for everyone; alas, these are all big, for-profit companies with quarterly reports and bottom lines, and that generally means somewhat shorter term thinking.

As it stands now, VR content isn’t easy to access. There are a handful of platforms that serve as distribution channels, like Littlstar,  but they don’t yet have a mass audience. And the average person searching on YouTube is just as likely to get something amateurish and poorly made as they are to find something wonderful if they just search for a general term like “virtual reality” or “360 video.” And forget about getting versions of premium experiences for 360 viewers — many of the pieces built for the Vive or the Rift that get attention and critical praise don’t have corresponding 360 versions, meaning that unless a user has access to an expensive headset, they can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Too often, experiences only live in one place, and most of the time they’re not even publicized well when they launch. A handful of great blogs do an admirable job covering new releases, and really huge stuff can generally score mainstream mentions, but many releases are buried without ever getting a real chance to break through. Add to this the fact that there aren’t great recommendation engines for VR content, and this leads to content sinking before it can rise to the surface.

One of the biggest challenges in VR right now is that everything seems to only exist in one place, and devices can’t play nicely with each other. I had to buy a questionable Samsung phone on eBay so I could use the Gear headset, but most people aren’t going to do that. And as nice as the Daydream headset is, I’m not buying yet another phone just so I can use it. If content producers and device manufacturers are serious about making VR work in the long run, they’ll put aside short-termism and make sure everyone can participate — after all, a rising tide should lift all boats.