Everyone in the VR industry can envision a world in the next 10 years that’s radically changed by virtual reality. From healthcare, education, social, training, cinema, gaming, and more, VR has a lot of Killer Use-cases. But it seems most of the industry is in agreement that the Killer App—a single, platform-defining piece of software that compels buyers—has not yet arrived. Epic’s Nick Whiting weighs in on how we might come to find it.

Every day this week leading up to the 2017 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we’re featuring insights on the hunt for the killer app from virtual reality’s leading companies. Today we hear from Nick Whiting, Technical Director of VR & AR at Epic Games.

Nick Whiting

nick-whiting-epic-gamesWhiting oversees the development of the award-winning Unreal Engine 4’s virtual reality efforts. In addition to shipping working on Robo Recall, Bullet Train, Thief in the Shadows, Showdown, and Couch Knights for VR platforms, he has also helped shipped titles in the blockbuster Gears of War series, including Gears of War 3 and Gears of War: Judgment.

Road to VR:
What traits do you think VR’s Killer App needs to have?

To me, the Killer App has to be something that uniquely justifies the medium. It needs to be an app that brings people into the VR ecosystem because there simply isn’t another way to get the same experience in any other way. That’s the defining characteristic!

Right now, we’re still very early in VR. As with other mediums, we’re in a period that is largely comprised of imitation of other media. For VR games, we’re largely imitating the canon of 3D games that’s been developing since the ’90s. For entertainment, we’re largely using the same techniques of framing and timing from film, but adapted a little bit to make it feel better in VR.

This isn’t anything new! You can see the same pattern in early film, which were largely imitations and recordings of stage plays or common events. It’s easy to forget that the grammar of cinematography that we know today took decades to develop into what we know of as film today! The same was true with games, which imitated sports, comics, and movies for many years before they really started breaking new ground.

Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 is one of the leading tools for VR game development. It also powers ‘Robo Recall‘, the company’s first ‘full’ VR title which is due to launch by the end of Q1 2017.

This wave of consumer VR has only really been around for a little over a year now, so I think we still have a little bit of time to go before we develop those ideas that are unique to the medium. I don’t know what they will specifically be, but I think we can hazard a guess based on the strengths.

Experiences out there right now, if we’re honest with ourselves, largely rely on the novelty of the experience of the hardware. As we all know, it’s magical the first time you put on a headset and can look around! However, without compelling content, that novelty wears off, and those experiences don’t seem quite as compelling. To make something with staying power, we need to identify what makes the medium unique, and figure out how to leverage that.

To me, the most important feature of VR is what I like to call “immersive interaction.” The idea is similar to presence, but centers more around the fact that unlike any other medium, you’re physically represented in the world, as well as your direct actions. You can not only look around, but reach out and grab things in a way that a game with its pre-baked animations can’t really match. You’re part of the action, and that builds the magical sense of presence. Because of that, I believe that the killer app must include interaction with motion controllers. It takes the immersive visuals of VR, and adds immersive interaction, which truly lets you be internalized as part of another world.

I think another very powerful extension of this is the social aspect. Social experiences in VR are so compelling because we track real human motion. So, if I nod at you, all the parts of your brain that are trained to recognize that motion do, and you feel the presence of another human in a shared space. That’s something 2D video can’t match, and something uniquely powerful for the medium. Multiple people sharing the same virtual space with such intimacy can’t be replicated without VR. As tracking technology improves, this could truly be something that is revolutionary.

Road to VR:
If you had to make a bet, which sector of VR would you predict as the place where the first Killer App emerges?

Depending on how you define it, the “killer app” might already be here for enterprise. While it doesn’t move tons of headsets, or have the flash of entertainment applications, we’re already starting to see huge wins in terms of savings and cost reduction in enterprise applications, which is causing steady growth for VR usage.

A simple example is in the architecture and construction industries. When a client orders a multi-million dollar building, the architect has to do his best to give the client an idea of what the finished product will be like, years before it’s even built. While renderings and previsualization can give you a great sense of the style and aesthetics of a building, it is distinctly lacking in some of the “human factors” of how the space feels. Because of this, large-scale projects often spend large amounts of money after construction has begun to redesign and redo work once the client has been able to physically stand in a space. Savvy builders and architects have realized that this can be greatly reduced through putting the client in a VR mockup of the space, which allows them to get a better feeling for the final product, and make those changes while it’s still on paper, rather than already half-built!

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You can easily expand that to many other areas of engineering and design, where ideas and concepts have to go through separate teams in order to bring a product to fruition. Being able to have everyone visualize a product while it’s still in early planning helps ensure that everything from design to construction to training can be accomplished before any fabrication has begun. That’s a huge cost and time savings, and given VR’s proliferation in those industries, I think that deserves to be called a Killer App.

Road to VR:
Do you think VR’s Killer App will launch in 2017?

Of course, because Robo Recall launches Q1 2017! In reality though, I think that 2017 is somewhat optimistic for a killer app. Great content, yes. But, killer apps are built on the shoulders of countless lessons learned from the apps that came before them. While we’re starting to see a lot of great content trickle out (the mainstream market attention of Resident Evil 7 and Rez Infinite are great indicators), you have to remember that great content generally takes two or three years to develop.

Latest Figures Suggest 'Resident Evil 7' Has Exceeded 1.25 Million PSVR Players

It was only last year that consumer headsets were first widely commercially available, and it was only a few months before that when the big players announced release dates and pricing. Because of that, many of the traditional funding vehicles that create killer content didn’t kick in until a little over a year ago. That means many projects that took that initial round of funding still have about a year to go before they see the light of day. Because of that, I think 2018 is going to be the year where we start seeing a wider variety of great content from a variety of developers, and hopefully our killer app is somewhere in that batch.

More from the ‘On the Hunt for VR’s Killer App’ Series:

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Brandon Smith

    I think the trajectory of games as a medium is a little different than the trajectory of film. Mr. Whiting is entirely correct that early film borrowed from staged productions. But I feel like games grew INTO referencing film as a source instead of grew out of it. Early video games took inspiration from table top games such as Dungeons and Dragons, novels such as The Lord Of The Rings, films like Star Wars and Star Trek, plays like the works of William Shakespeare and board games like Monopoly or Risk. Film, too, was an influence. But film was just one of MANY influences.

    As time has gone on, I feel like many or most of the influences that created gaming have been strained out in favor of leaning ENTIRELY on film.

    I honestly think this is part of the reason why there is such a huge (and often ignorant) resistance to VR. People feel like because games have become indistinguishable from film that we have “arrived”. It’s “done” now. No further work is required.

    • RFC_VR

      VR requires a fresh, innovate and unique approach to design, whether for gaming or no-gaming applications

      The “Killer App” is not a single application, but a suite of quality applications with compelling content, that make ownership of expensive hardware worthwhile.

      If you think back on previous console generations, each had a suite of AAA or Inde titles that made that console, but this took time and $$.

      Its early days, and I am seeing Rift in exchange stores across London, hopefully we don’t seem the same with Vive as users get bored and trade in?

  • Get Schwifty!

    I know its not hip to say it, but I still say there won’t be a single “killer app” for VR. People still say the spreadsheet was the killer app for the PC, and I will tell you that it was actually gaming that brought a lot of young men and women into the PC world, not the prospect of doing spread sheets. Business dove on the PC with word processing, but it was the power of spread sheets that they really liked, but again this was no factor for gamers. Likewise, many in other fields like medical had limited reason to use spreadsheets, but found other aspects like databases far more important. I find the “killer app” hypothesis weak unless you are describing high level subsets of users.

    Half-serious, it may well be pr0n which helps drive mass VR once the price is low enough, content is produced, and the price of entry (no pun intended) comes down, as its the lowest common denominator among people. Teledildonics anyone?

    • nebošlo

      I think the lesson we learn from the past is that you can’t predict killer apps. It’s often a mix of that time zeitgeist, the culture, new technology and it’s reception and of course, media coverage and marketing. But what the actual product is? Not always the deciding factor.

    • OgreTactics

      There won’t be a VR killer app as long as they’re no killer VR Headset. Duh.

  • Firestorm185

    Haven’t exactly read this article yet, but all I’ve got to say is I’d like to see Robo Recall hit the light of day before/if anything happens with that injunction. It looks like such a beautiful game, for no one to ever get it would be a shame…

  • nebošlo

    Next to driving sims and Super Hot, the Robo Recall demo is probably my favourite thing in VR, still. So I’m really looking forward to this.

  • Michael Hegemann

    VR itself is the killer app.

    • Get Schwifty!

      I actually think you may be right… you are either compelled towards it or not…

  • Abdul Khan

    From what I’ve been reading across different articles; the killer apps is dependent on having the killer HMD.

    The adoption of the killer HMD will be through having the killer app, when that tech generations HMD cost is low, size is small + untethered and displays consist of extremely high resolution/refresh rates). I expect that peripherals/ mechanics for interaction and movement within the virtual space will be major factors towards adoption.

    Enthusiasts will continue to support the developing technology however the end users for mass adoption, from my understanding, prefer a settled technology that has incremental performance upgrades. I tentatively predict that things will be closer to that point in approximately 3 years. Either way, seeing the evolution of all the technologies that come together to form VR hardware is truly amazing.