Virtual reality’s fragile magic ingredient

One moment I’m in a room full of people, the next I’m in the sun-scorched Australian Outback. But it takes more than the fancy graphics of the Samsung Gear VR virtual-reality headset I’ve just lowered over my head to convince me I’m really hanging out with aborigines.

What it takes, says Richard Marks of Sony’s VR arm, PlayStation Magic Lab, is something virtual-reality pros call “presence.”

“Presence starts with the image being right,” Marks says. “We’re getting very good at making the images look good. Add in spatialized audio and you become even more convinced that you’re present somewhere.”

Marks was one of the filmmakers and content creators discussing VR at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, which saw an explosion of interest in the topic and many festival-goers trying Gear VR, Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard VR headsets for the first time.

How do you make them want to return for a second, a third and a 50th time?

It’s a question of great importance to high-tech companies looking for the next big thing and already banking on virtual reality taking off in 2016. Investments in VR by the likes of Facebook, Google, Samsung and Sony, along with well-funded startups like Jaunt, NextVR and Magic Leap, are expected to change the way we play video games, take field trips, and watch sports and movies.

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