Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The year that VR played itself

The year that VR played itself

In a recent article for The New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino recounted how 2016 was the year that she played herself. I can relate. 2016 was a doozy. I thought it couldn’t get worse, but boy, it kept getting worse. And I played myself, time and time again.

If you’re at all familiar with the memes around DJ Khaled, or any of his pristinely produced hits, then you’re familiar with his catchphrase, “You played yourself.” But the term, as Tolentino recounts, predates the man who Snapchatted being lost at sea in the dead of night on a jetski. “You played yourself” means you fooled yourself. You rested assured in your actions, but in reality were working against the goals you set for yourself, like an overtly confident “I Voted”-sticker clad selfie on election day. Thinking you had things figured out so right, but in reality, you were so, so wrong. You played yourself. And in the hellish year of 2016, something else did too.

That's me, riding to my death at golden hour.
That’s me, riding to my death at golden hour.

Virtual reality this year played itself. The big ‘V’ and ‘R’ was held high by technology evangelists to be the next big thing. VR was publicly released for the masses this year—beyond tepid devkits, and ushered into wealthy consumers’ homes (even if they did ship far later than anticipated). VR found its home in high-end PCs, Playstation 4 consoles, and even mobile devices. VR was, for the first time, “everywhere.” Except it ended up being nowhere. As recently as November 2016, only 0.21 percent of Steam users even own a VR headset.

VR made only a dent in its premiere year, not a smash. Sony tempered its sales predictions for its VR headset after a lackluster launch. And during Sony’s annual Playstation Experience conference, nearly two months after the release of Playstation VR, the hardware got mentioned about as many times as the basically-defunct portable Playstation Vita (which launched way back in 2011). VR is floundering in shallow water, when it should be making its first butterfly strokes.

VR is floundering

The “Year of VR” ended up being the year of pretty much every other reality instead: augmented, mixed, even plain old reality itself. Pokémon Go brought Pidgeys and Pikachus to our living rooms and sidewalks. Mixed reality, in a lot of ways, is building up to be the next VR—something overhyped to a possible detriment. Real life continued to be awful. The reality we see via other means, whether through a Snapchat Lens, Hololens, or fingers interlaced over our eyes in terror over the Orange Man and his cabinet of goblins, often overshadowed the one we see through a head-mounted display.

But the supposed “Year of VR” wasn’t all bad. Independent developers and artists were some of the first to grasp the technology wholeheartedly, and did what they do best: they experimented. Some made art installations. Some made films. Some made personal projects. Some made things to make you laugh. And that’s where VR has the brightest future. The weird stuff. The stuff that might not necessarily lie on Steam in the “relevance” category when you search for VR titles. The stuff that often falls between the cracks—ignored by the masses in favor of yet another empathy-driven documentary.

I look forward to seeing what 2017 brings with more augmented, mixed, and yes, virtual reality for us to behold. There are more people with VR now, so more people are able to see what it’s capable of. And, of course, more will create because of that. With the recent release of Oculus’ Quill and Medium, there will surely be an inevitable upswing of inventive art, as Tilt Brush has blessed us with this year. There will be more creators making weird, fun, sad, breathtaking things. And life will go on, even as technology advances and we usher ourselves into an uncertain future, as it always has.

See you next year.

Images /// Pexels

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