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What’s the reality of VR?

13 September 2016
What’s the reality of VR?

VR is undoubtedly one of the hot topics at IBC this year and visitors are seeing plenty of new developments on the show floor and hearing about the latest thinking in the conference too. VR is certainly already starting to find traction in sports event coverage (I’ll discuss later whether this can actually yet be classified as live broadcasting), and I am really enjoying hearing how this exciting new visual technique can be successfully applied as a storytelling medium; sport, after all, is not a story – it’s an event with multiple points of interest at any one time.

In contrast, a drama most definitely is a story, and how to embrace the enormous possibilities of VR while leading your viewers through a storyline is one of the big talking points at IBC.

The best seat in the house

In sports broadcasting, at first glance, VR looks like a no brainer. What could be better than having the best seat in the house to take in all the action? You can hear and feel the rest of the crowd around you, and see the person who just spilt beer down your neck! Or you can check out what the coach is doing while the main live action cameras would be concentrated on the battle to score points. Don’t forget that full surround sound is a key component to feeling like you are actually there.

Give me more!

Counter-intuitively, though, while this may be the best seat in the house, it seems that this is not always enough for the VR viewer sitting at home: it gets boring. We still expect to see the myriad of zooms, replays and stats just like we are used to on the big-screen TV when watching the live broadcast.

This can be partly solved by putting stats and zooms either side of the VR viewer’s focus point: turn your head left for stats and right for zooms or replays. All sounds cool, however VR is not (yet) a real-time medium; over a second of processing time is required, hence yet more challenges to confront to run it alongside the live action. So I would say that as we stand today, VR for sports events is not a replacement for traditional live broadcasting, but a complementary stream that offers extra viewer engagement. The bottom line: sports rights holders still need to figure out how to make money with VR.

Challenging storytellers

VR storytellers are debating how to handle VR cuts. As VR is a virtual out of body experience I can see this because I’m sure that like me you’ve woken up in a hotel on your travels and have taken a second or two to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. Because of the immersive nature of VR, cutting between two scenes can have a similar effect: you need a few moments to work out where you now are and feel comfortable with it, otherwise it’s going to be quite disturbing.

Current thinking is that cuts are possible in VR storytelling, but they need to be both infrequent and slowly made to be able to take the audience along with you.

All this being said, VR documentaries can be spectacular. Time can be permitted for the viewer to look around in the full 360-degree environment. No doubt these VR productions will cause the return of the ‘voice of God’ narrations in documentaries as they can guide the viewers as to what and where to look.

Did I mention audio? Audio is critical to the whole VR world: we rely on our ears to help us make sense of an awful lot of what we experience in our everyday activities. Hence, a lot of work is going on right now in getting audio to perfectly complement VR visuals.
Looking forward, sideways and backwards…

So, where do I stand on VR? For me it’s a tremendously exciting technology beyond gaming and commercial usage.

It is already making a mark in our industry: lots of investment and head scratching on both the creative and business sides. Attendees are learning at IBC is how far it can go into the world of visual storytelling. I am however certain there are visionaries who will pick up this new medium and find new ways of telling great stories with it.

Stan Moote, CTO, IABM 

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