A dose of virtual reality

Kate BulkleyIs VR the next big thing? Kate Bulkley looks at the bigger picture.

The end of pure TV as we know it is nigh. In fact it’s probably already here, what with the growth of on-demand, online and cross-device viewing and the decline in linear TV viewing. This is not good news for the TV space, but as the chairman of NBCUniversal International Kevin MacLellan recently told an RTS conference in London, the fall in viewing of professional video content is “not ideal but it’s not the disaster you might be led to believe.” That’s because producers and distributors – like NBCU – are thinking outside of the TV box.

One area that is attracting a lot of attention and money right now is virtual reality (VR). While the jury is still out on whether VR is the next big thing, broadcasters, content creators and major technology companies such as Facebook are all putting big bets on the technology. However, there are still issues to work out. Alex Mahon, CEO of The Foundry, a leading visual effects company, told an audience at IBC in Amsterdam in September that we are “a few hardware cycles away from the product being mass market”. The main problem, she added, is that: “I need to be able to pick up my glass of wine while watching the content.”

Content makers are forging ahead, often with hybrid consumer offers. Deutsche Telekom recently streamed a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in 4K 360° VR to 675,000 viewers on YouTube Live. Look at NBCU’s latest foray into VR with its Syfy series Halcyon, a scripted show that debuted in September and was made for linear, online and, partially, to be viewed via the Oculus Rift VR platform.

Meanwhile, a 12-minute narrative experience for USA Network series Mr. Robot has been available on a number of VR devices since July. 

It is still early days but technology pioneer Sky launched a new VR app in October 2016, which has as its debut piece of content a film fronted by footballer David Beckham. Shot in 360° video, the film is clearly a promotion for Sky’s TV content across its sport and entertainment channels, with Beckham, in this case, wandering through recent sporting moments. But there is also VR-rendered footage from the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well as a 360-degree report from Sky News on the Calais refugee camp. Sky has invested in cinematic VR firm Jaunt and although the operator is starting with 360° video, Sky’s head of content Gary Davey has already launched Sky VR Studios because he says he is a “big believer” in VR.

Capturing VR content is complex but there are a plethora of independent VR producers popping up, including a new production company set up by John Cassy, former head of Sky Arts. Cassy’s Factory 42 has been commissioned by Sky to produce an immersive VR experience inspired by the English National Ballet’s production of Giselle. Cassy says that the new studio will work at “the intersection of TV, film and games to create multi-platform stories” using both augmented reality and VR. Cassy is not alone. James Milward’s company Secret Location has produced some 14 VR projects over the last two years and has another five in production. In 2015 the producer won the first primetime Emmy award for a VR project for its work on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. Demand for this kind of content is increasing: Damien Collier, the ‘Charlie Bit my Finger’ social media entrepreneur who founded Viral Spiral recently launched a new venture called Blend Media, an online platform for 360° video and VR producers and creators to showcase and sell their content.

It’s almost hard to believe that it was only two years ago that then-student Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter fund to raise money for a virtual reality headset called Oculus Rift. His company was very quickly purchased by Facebook and 2016 will likely be the launch year for mass market VR gaming, according to Enders Analysis. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google have each built platforms for user generated 360-degree content but professionally made narrative content from studios is going to be a slower burn. For example, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, who heads up content at the SVOD service, is doubling down on 4K as a differentiator rather than VR, because he’s not convinced that VR really works yet for narrative content.

One area where VR content is already starting to show up is in advertising. You can imagine that a car maker thinks the ability to virtually walk around and even drive a car in VR would be a big pull for sales. The New York Times has been a pioneer in using the Google cardboard VR viewer to attract its subscribers to VR-created content including VR news stories and ad-funded content from companies including General Electric. The paper won a Grand Prix Cannes Lion award earlier this year for its VR app and it clearly sees it helping to attract advertising money at a time when the paper is struggling to move from an analogue to a digital world.

TV business, take note. 

Kate Bulkley is a broadcaster and writer specialising in media and telecommunications. [email protected]

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