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Virtual reality: A new creative medium?

K7 Media projects director Phil Birchenall searches for the meaning of ‘life’ in virtual reality

Even after years working at the frontline of the television and digital crossover, the deeply techie nature of IBC is still a little off-putting. Sure, I know the basics of a MAM and can just about hold my own in a conversation about tapeless workflows, but what really interests me is the impact of technology on the type of content we consume.

With a schedule that beautifully balances the nuts and bolts of broadcast tech with insights from where content and digital collide, signing up to last month’s IBC was a bit of a no-brainer and I’d be disappointed if I didn’t return evangelising about the new technologies set to transform how we think about TV.

I’m the guy with the Apple Watch, Bluetooth speaker in the shower and Wi-Fi lighting that syncs with my television screen; an adopter of the earliest possible type. Undoubtedly virtual reality – and the emergence of 360-degree video – is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift in 2014 certainly grabbed headlines, shifting the perception that VR was just a tool for sweaty geeks to chase orcs around dungeons. When a social giant sweeps up a platform two years ahead of launch, for a vast sum, it’s pretty clear that motivations lie beyond simply creating a more realistic experience for gamers.

Other major tech players have signalled their own intentions to enter the market. Like Oculus Rift, Sony’s Morpheus is also pegged for 2016 release, while Microsoft aims to join the virtual party later still with its HoloLens platform. As for Apple, true to form the company has quietly acquired VR technologies and will doubtless remain tight-lipped until a trademark ‘one more thing…’ keynote announcement.

Critically though, technology alone will not sell virtual reality to the mass market. Drawing a comparison between 3D TV and VR may be obvious, but it’s clear there are lessons to learn. An entire generation of ‘3D ready’ sets are rapidly becoming landfill as consumers are guided towards 4K upgrades by friendly retail staff. For all the fanfare around the launch of 3D compatible televisions, the lack of genuinely compelling content – save for a few blockbuster movies – quickly smothered any remaining interest in the technology. When it comes to this latest ‘paradigm shift’ in entertainment, the public will need to be convinced.

Just as Nintendo’s Wii Sports introduced the alien concept of playing video games with real-world movements to the general public, those investing in VR must somehow normalise the strange and solitary experience of wearing goggles for entertainment. Whereas 3D enabled TVs hit the consumer market en masse, with little actual content available, the slow burn launch of VR is inverting this approach. Though the heavyweight VR platforms have not yet arrived in the high street there is already a myriad of content emerging.

At the end of July, Oculus Story Studio premiered Henry, a cutesy CGI short following the titular hedgehog as he celebrates his birthday with just the ‘viewer’ for company. The film, produced with the help of three former Pixar seniors, clearly sets out to introduce VR to a broad audience. There’s no computer generated thrills on show here, just subtle emotional connections between our hero and his real-world companion.

The BBC is investing a modest £100,000 into VR through the experimental Taster platform, having issued a call for ideas that might use the technology to engage with younger audiences. VICE is making tentative steps into the arena, too, launching a 360 web series that gives audiences first-hand experience of extreme sports such as parkour. It’s the tip of the iceberg; already there are VR promotions for major movie releases, virtual reality campaign videos, art projects and more.

Arguably it is Google that is leading the charge to bring virtual reality to the masses. Just £10 buys Google Cardboard, a rudimentary but effective headset that brings the VR experience to anyone with a smartphone. It’s a tenner well spent.

Fundamentally, whether VR achieves mainstream success remains to be seen. As audiences, we need to be engaged and compelled by the technology and the content developed for it, finding time in our own busy realities to ‘don the goggles’ and escape to another dimension. Time will tell whether VR is a gamers’ paradise or indeed a new creative medium.

By Phil Birchenall, projects director, K7 Media