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Mainstream VR – virtually a reality?

Virtual reality is still in its infancy but is already attracting significant investment from major tech players including Google, Facebook and Samsung. This big spend is

Virtual reality is still in its infancy but is already attracting significant investment from major tech players including Google, Facebook and Samsung. This big spend is matched by big ideas as Zuckerberg and others in Silicon Valley and beyond, seek to utilise VR and AR (Augmented Reality) to create the computing platforms of the future. The vision and potential opportunity is much wider than just watching a video or playing a game: it’s social, it’s communication, it’s productive, it’s creative and much more besides, most of which has not even been thought out yet.

Alongside a growing range of applications is a broad spectrum of available headsets, from £10 cardboard boxes that turn your smartphone into a headset through to the £700 fully immersive VR headsets requiring thousands of pounds worth of PC processing power to function. Low-cost options offer the ability to attract and familiarise the mass consumer, high-cost solutions supply the early adopter segment and bring revenues into the industry for further curation and development.

To date, much of the investment has centred on equipment and hardware. In the top 20 VR related Kickstarter projects (the original launch pad for Oculus) 17 are hardware related; of the $4 billion plus being invested, once again much has been diverted to hardware. Although understandable, this hardware is not going to last long without an ever-rising amount of compelling content to view. Thankfully, the past few months have seen a rising number of investments and an array of big hitters venturing into the VR content space.

Major content producers including Disney, Fox and Discovery are taking initial steps into utilising VR as a promotional tool for traditional content and also experimenting with monetisation. Pay-TV platform Sky has invested over £1 million into US-based VR pioneer Jaunt and in March this year announced the launch of its own Sky VR production facilities. When added to the more recent announcements that Spielberg is venturing into VR and Star Wars is set to go VR (both in video and gaming) people are getting excited.

VR should not be considered a replacement for traditional TV and video. It’s a new platform, a new opportunity for consumer engagement and should be treated as such. It’s also not a platform for all genres, but where it works, it can provide a compelling and immersive experience. Short, innovative, creative genres are key in the near-term; short films, music videos, documentaries will all work extremely well, if done correctly.

As much as immersive feature length films would/will be a fantastic experience, there are still many issues to resolve, from a production perspective, through to the consumer hardware limitations of wearing a heavy bulky device over a long period. But let’s remember this is first generation, there’s a huge amount of development and innovation to take place in camera technology and creative techniques in addition to new generation headsets on the horizon from Google, Samsung and others.

For the industry as a whole, a major focus must be on ensuring consumers keep returning to VR and it doesn’t become a novelty feature. One aspect of this has been the curation of episodic content, in some cases attracting major industry names. Jaunt’s six part series Invisible counts Bourne Identity director Doug Liman and Oscar nominated screen write Melisa Wallack among the production team.

There are counter arguments to potential success of VR which must be considered and addressed. One of the most important is monetisation of content. Currently content is mainly free to the consumer (and rightly so) as the industry seeks to drive awareness and secure consumer buy in. Advertising is currently the main source of income, bringing revenue back into the industry for reinvestment.

Getting consumers to pay for content will add further stimulus to make content, and therein lies another risk – content being made for making’s sake. Poor quality content and user experience on first trial jeopardises VR’s longevity and consumer potential for returning to the technology.

There is more than just user hype behind VR, and considering the potential beyond just entertainment and the opportunities presented by AR (just consider the overnight success of Pokémon Go!) the technology looks to have longevity but all this will hinge on continued investment from the industry in ensuring that the proposition continues to evolve with lighter, less intrusive headsets and increasingly compelling content to grab and maintain the consumer’s attention.

By Carl Hibbert, associate director, entertainment content and delivery, Futuresource

Industry innovators and leaders will be invited to discuss VR and opportunities for the audio hardware and content industry at the next Futuresource conference, Audio Collaborative 2016 – from Renaissance to Evolution, on Tuesday 8th November at the Ham Yard Hotel in London. If you are interested in a speaker slot, press pass sponsorship or would like to attend this conference, then please visit our conference page here.