Is Virtual Reality the Future of Video?

Tech Giants Google and Facebook Seem All In on Virtual Reality Video; Is It Finally Coming to the Masses? 

It’s been a few years since I’ve attended the international Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest trade show for consumer electronics. Held annually in the city of trade shows, Las Vegas, CES is the show to attend to experience all the bleeding-edge technology that will eventually make its way to store shelves. It’s the show to attend, that is, if you’re part of the consumer-electronics industry. However, if you’re a mere consumer of electronics, the show is off-limits to you. Just as well. For every cool new product that you discover, you have to walk past 150 spaces selling iPhone accessories and questionable, sometimes disturbing, USB devices. (Do we really need USB toenail clippers?)

Woman on Virtual Realty Headset

Enter Oculus Rift

If you scan one of the hundreds of articles about CES 2016, you’ll see news about OLED screens, 8K televisions, more wearable tech, more connected home devices, and even more drones. One of the hot spots of the show was Facebook-owned Oculus VR and its long-awaited product, Rift. The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality (VR) headset that allows the wearer to be immersed in rich and convincing 3-D environments. Oculus announced at CES that it would begin accepting preorders of the $599 Rift, expected to ship in spring of 2016. But before you grab your wallet, be aware that the computing requirements to use the Oculus Rift—particularly the graphics card required—may be out of reach for most. Guess I’m stuck with plain old real reality.

Virtual reality video is a market so big that Goldman Sachs is predicting that it could become an $80 billion industry by 2025.

While the Oculus Rift has been a greatly anticipated leap forward in technology, VR products have been on the market for a while. One of the most notable recent releases was Google Cardboard, a simple VR viewer constructed of—wait for it—cardboard. It actually comes as a flat piece of cardboard that you have to fold yourself. Add a smartphone and, voilà, you have a low-tech VR viewer that only costs $20 (assuming you already own a smartphone). When I attended VidCon 2015, YouTube (a Google company) gave Google Cardboard free to all industry attendees. After a little origami and downloading the corresponding app, I quickly found myself exploring a recommended destination: the interior of an aviation museum. Cool. I then discovered how oily my forehead was based on the residue that ended up on my Cardboard viewer. Not cool.

Headset-Scratching Technology

It seems like advances in technology receive the most buzz when they resonate with consumers as an unanticipated solution to a problem. While VR headsets seem like an obvious next step in gaming, it’s the marriage of community and our increasing desire for experiences that makes the potential of VR really exciting. Mark Zuckerberg has big plans for VR, projecting that it will be the next big computing platform. Despite the buzz, VR has a few hurdles to overcome. Besides some VR headsets requiring lots of computing power, there’s the matter of many users experiencing “virtual reality sickness.” VR sickness is similar to motion sickness, but it’s actually visually induced. And then there’s the matter of wearing the headset itself. 3-D television didn’t catch on as expected, in part because of viewers’ reluctance to wear glasses to enjoy the experience. Magnify this problem by 100 and you have a VR headset. Not exactly the sexiest fashion accessory of the year.

In addition to the challenges of complex, pricey cameras and special software, there’s an even bigger challenge: creating interesting content.

While Oculus is capturing headlines right now, several manufacturers plan to release VR headsets this year, propelling the popularity of VR beyond a niche gaming market. It’s a market so big that Goldman Sachs is predicting that it could become an $80 billion industry by 2025. And while VR will find its roots in gaming and entertainment, the uses are practically endless for both consumer and commercial applications. While it’s likely that gaming will initially dominate as the primary market for VR, it appears that other storytelling mediums, such as video, will be early adopters as well. Right now, the preferred accessible form of VR video is the 360-degree video, which can be viewed with or without a VR headset.

Illustrated Virtual Reality Headset

Currently, the most popular 360-degree video destination is YouTube. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially given Google’s renewed interest in VR.

360 Problems but Video Ain’t One

As the name implies, video is shot with a special camera or multiple cameras that capture a 360-degree field of view. The video feeds from the separate cameras are captured and “stitched” together, and special software allows the user to navigate around the sphere, either manually with a mouse or by turning and tilting the head while wearing a VR headset. Even though 360-degree camera systems can be pricey, new cameras are expected to launch this year that are compact and affordable. One such camera exhibited at CES was the Luna 360-degree VR camera, available for preorder at $299.

As is the case with all new fields of discovery, there will be much experimentation, which means there will be much failure.

Video featuring 360-degree technology is still in its infancy. In addition to the challenges of complex, pricey cameras and special software, there’s an even bigger challenge: creating interesting content. While videos that are exploration- or location-based are ideal for this platform, content that traditionally has a single point of attention is less successful. Imagine going to a Broadway musical and throughout the show you are constantly glancing around to see if anything is happening in the audience. While you might catch occasional interesting moments, such as a couple arguing behind you, chances are it will mostly just distract from the main performance happening on stage. The same problem is true for 360-degree videos of events or narrative storytelling. It might be interesting to look at the crowd at a concert once in a while, but we usually want to see the performing artist.

Virtual Reality

Nonetheless, several studios and production companies are up for the challenge of creating an immersive narrative experience. Even Oculus VR has formed Oculus Story Studio, a team of Hollywood veterans that will release short VR films. And whenever there is an opportunity for eyeballs, there’s an opportunity for advertising. VR production leader Framestore is offering classes for agency partners to get them up to speed quickly on VR. Of course, if brands manage to misuse the VR space, the next wave of expected innovation will be VR ad blockers. However, with such a rich opportunity for a unique experience, I suspect that we’ll see brands funding creative uses of VR, rather than just slapping up virtual billboards in games. At least I hope so.

Virtual Reality Is Still in Its Early Stages

As I stated above, 360-degree video—indeed the entire state of VR—is still very much in the beginning stages, but nonetheless it has progressed greatly since earlier efforts in the ’90s (and before, as the original View-Master was introduced in 1939). While I don’t think VR will completely overtake traditional filmmaking and online video, I do believe it will become a sustainable platform for storytelling. As is the case with all new fields of discovery, there will be much experimentation, which means there will be much failure. One of my favorite sayings is “Eat the fish and spit out the bones.” So spit out the bad VR content that we’ll see—and there will be a lot of it—and support the good content that emerges.

Photos: Shutterstock

Dennis Balgavy

Dennis Balgavy

Dennis Balgavy is a serial career changer: audio recording, product development, marketing communications, IT, research, video production, web development, and writing—and, oh, yeah, there was that time he flipped hamburgers.

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