R&D Deepdive: The “Why” of VR

Alan Melling
Alan Melling - September 29, 2017

It’s so easy to get stuck in a rhythm. We’ve all been there.

Day in and out: hitting the shutter button, clicking the export button, delivering your tours and getting paid.

But for this moment, I want us to take a step back and talk about some ideas. Let’s talk about the future.

We as photographers have benefited greatly by technology – our entire industry is enabled by it – but we’re also constantly weathering the storms of uncertainty caused by emerging tech.

One of the biggest clouds to roll through town is virtual reality. We’ve all heard so much hype around it, but it’s such a large field of concepts that it can be almost paralyzing to even know where to begin.

So join me as we start where we always start: with the “why?”

VR is not one thing

Well, it’s certainly not just that-one-thing-you-played-with-at-that-conference-that-one-time. And it’s definitely not just jamming your phone into a piece of cardboard with magnifying glasses.

It’s a whole mess of technologies and ideas that are coming together to give us another way to interact with information. Instead of words and images on a screen or a piece of paper, it embeds that information as objects and environments at a human scale. We’ll get to that human bit in a minute. Because...

Gadgets. That’s what most people think about when they think about virtual reality. They have visions of sci-fi movies from the 1990’s, of dystopian anti-heroes hacking through virtual space. Please... don’t believe that hype.

It’s so easy to slip into that portrayal of VR. It’s so easy to define the ideas by the clunky devices that we strap to our faces, because that’s what we see in commercials or in internet memes.

But once you experience it, it’s no longer about hand controllers or scuba masks or cell phones. Your imagination leaps immediately to the stories we can tell and its potential for effortless expression.

It’s about the body and its relationship to the brain.

Making Meaning and Hacking Brains

The true power of VR is in its embrace of our physical form. We spend years after birth learning all the rules of the physical realm, but then our designers ask us to throw that entire ruleset away when we interact with machines. Keyboards, mice, and even touch screens are all indirect ways to manipulate information. The reason I believe VR has so much power is that those abstractions vanish when you can directly deal with the actual thing in physical space, not some representation of it on a screen.

It actually changes how your brain consumes the information. Normally your brain has to parse the elements of a photo to construct a mental model of the scene. By moving into a media-evoked reality, we’re shifting the experience from the cognitive parts of the brain to the more intuitive subconscious. We’re able to drill down to the emotional part of the brain that’s more akin to memory. It’s the part that makes meaning.

In highly technical terms, we’re fooling the brain. We’re hacking around it’s edges. And to do that we have to really understand all the ways that the brain constructs its own sense of the world and the body’s place in it. Perceptual sciences have been working on this problem in VR for almost three decades, and we have a good understanding of how to build storytelling tools that keep people in the moment and also keep their lunch in their belly.

Gut Feel and World Craft

When you walk around in a really well-designed VR world, you almost feel it in your gut - and I don’t mean that in that pukey way. Because it leans so heavily on the familiar and visceral, there’s a kind of intangible trust that forms between you and the world. And if you’re lucky, that trust seeds a sense of discovery. We can build something that lets a homebuyer discover their life in this new house. That’s magic.

While that sounds transformative on the tour side, it will also affect how we think about the very act of photographing. Traditionally, when we photograph a house, we tend to think about it as a thing. A thing to be lighted and rendered into an image. Composition, depth, frame… these decisions are the concerns of a craftsman.

We have a new opportunity to engage a homebuyer in a moment where the house is not a thing, but a place that’s real enough to help them articulate to themselves what they want. Even though they’re walking around in a 3D model that’s only a representation, it can evoke a reality that’s real enough to help them find their own meaning.

This all sounds an awful lot like a video game. So, are we Game Designers now? Well.. sort of. I’ll go into detail later, but I will say that 3D scanning and photogrammetry, combined with game engines, present such a powerful set of tools that it would be inconceivable that we could look back at this moment as anything other than a paradigm shift.

We are at a point of redefinition. We as photographers have learned how to tell a story by combining images into a narrative, but designing in VR asks us to surrender some of that direct narrative control. But this is also the most exciting bit.

The meaning that our homebuyer has found in their experience is a product of us handing them some control. That sounds very abstract on its face, but how many times have you test driven a car and not pressed every last button?

Agency: Let Them Move and They’ll Move the World

By giving our homebuyers different methods of expressing their free will in this artificial environment, by giving them more agency, each tiny point of engagement is multiplicative. In VR, every object in the room can have real physics and be grabbed or even thrown.

This increased agency has a measurable impact on how people are emotionally invested in a space. The experience of walking through a space and interacting with it binds them to it. This artificial reality actually creates a real memory—we’ve had people visit a property after walking through it in VR and they’ve mentioned a real feeling of familiarity, like they’ve been there before. The place meant something to them already!

That’s never been said about a picture. Now that’s power.

For more on agency, I highly recommend taking some time to watch Charlie Sutton’s recent talk on ‘agency’ in VR. He goes into much greater detail into how he and his team at Facebook are conceiving the next generation of media and design.



A New Workflow

When TV emerged as a new medium, it took 5 years for producers to do more with it than just read a radio play into a microphone in front of a camera. It simply takes time for us to understand a new medium and how to create with it.

And so too will it be with virtual reality.

Every VR product on the market today for real estate, even the ones that claim to be “3D walkthroughs”, are just the same panoramas that we’ve known for more than a decade. They’re just jammed into a headset. It’s a radio play on the TV.

But do not fear. Our future in VR is so much more than that. This current wave of real estate VR is just a stepping stone along the path.

Despite my philosophizing about story mechanics and neuroscience, we aren’t engaging in an ivory tower research experiment; there are real things to be figured out. It’s going to take new kinds of capture and production and editing. And we still have to figure out how to mix together everything into one cohesive experience.

There’s so much here to cover that it’s going to take a whole ‘nother post, but I want to give a sneak peak at areas that will see significant change in the coming years:

New devices (VR)
Enables new experiences
Requires new media types (3D models, volumetric video, lightfields)
Requires new capture methods + hardware
Requires new production/editing methods
Requires new ways to weave it all together

It won’t all happen at once, but we will see tectonic shifts along the way that will enable one area or inhibit another. And hopefully the fog around what is possible will begin to clear.

So what now?

This post was intended to discuss the “why” of VR and immersive media, and to show that it is so much more than what you see on offer today.

Please join me for the next part of the series where I’ll be discussing everything that comes after “why”:

  • What? What are the artifacts and deliverables? What are we selling?
  • How? How are we even going to make all this stuff? How’s anybody going to see it? And how does anybody make a business around it?
  • When? When the bloody hell is all this happening? AHH!


  • Room-scale VR is a new kind of user experience with new rules, some of which we’re all learning together.
  • The phrase “virtual tour” has been oversold for a decade. But this new medium lives up to the ambition. No longer will our reach exceed our grasp.
  • It’s more than a simple image, it’s immersion in a space that finally allows the homebuyer to discover something personal and meaningful.
  • The only way to “get it” is to try it. Watching a video about it just isn’t enough, just like a telegram couldn’t describe the first feature film. Find a demo nearby of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.