The art of virtual reality is in creating the perception of immersion in a 3D environment that isn’t really there. It’s a challenge not unlike the one facing the nascent business of VR content: producing for an audience that doesn’t exist, either.
But that could be about to change, with Samsung and Oculus last month teaming to deploy the first headset, Gear VR, for U.S. consumers, complete with a virtual store for games and videos. Google is already in the virtual space as well, with its cheaper solution, Google Cardboard; it and many lesser-known brands will look to the Intl. Consumer Electronics Show to flaunt their devices.
What they lack in content is being provided by apps from third-parties like Jaunt, a VR camera manufacturer looking to stimulate the market with programming such as a Paul McCartney concert video that will bring you closer to the Beatle than a front-row seat.
These are the tentative first steps to reach a user base that has yet to materialize. But if it can match even a fraction of the passion of the nascent VR industry ready to reach it, there’s reason for high hopes. Research firm KZero Worldwide estimates there were only about 200,000 VR users in 2014, but projects that market will mushroom to 170 million worldwide by 2018.
While hardware like Gear VR aims to make that growth happen, the content inside the lenses will be just as important. As Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey put it at the Oculus Connect conference in September: “Without content, nobody would be interested in this whole virtual reality thing.”
That content is expected primarily to be vidgames, but all sorts of video programming, like the McCartney show, is a part of VR, too. The lack of certainty about the nature of the market — or even if there will be one — hasn’t deterred a combination of tech-savvy production outfits and traditional studios from beginning to produce VR-friendly video. Either they’re propelled by sheer faith that VR is the Next Big Thing or they’re just covering their bases due to an understandable case of FOMO.
“There are no real marching orders, because there’s no defined place where things will end up,” said Ted Schilowitz, who leads the Fox Innovation Lab at 20th Century Fox. “You have to be very nimble at this point.”
Few question that VR is going to be a big deal in the future; the question is whether we are now at the inflection point at which this technology has been waiting for decades to arrive. Consumers — perhaps some of them, too, with a fear of missing out — will make that clear soon enough, and they will determine how soon VR becomes a medium in its own right for the entertainment world.
Every major studio is already dipping a toe in these waters, with VR extensions to popular franchises including Fox’s “The X-Men,” Warner Bros.’ “Batman” and Paramount’s “Interstellar” and “How to Train Your Dragon” just a few examples of what’s in circulation as installations at events. Gear VR also boasts derivative content from Legendary, Marvel, Imax, Vevo and Cirque du Soleil. There are also plenty of independent projects like “Zero Point,” billed as the first original VR movie by startup Condition One. Even this month’s Sundance Film Festival is catching VR fever, with nine entries employing the technology featured in a program devoted to innovative filmmaking.
“There is a lot of energy in Hollywood around immersive video as a new content type that they’re interested in exploring,” said Nick DiCarlo, VP-g.m. of immersive products and virtual reality at Samsung. “That all looks like real investment and the risk-taking necessary to get something like this off the ground, so I’m very encouraged.”
The only thing that might exceed the breathless anticipation is the potential for disappointment. VR could be just the latest in a lengthy line of innovations that didn’t make good on their tremendous promise for the entertainment business, which seems to apply the same mix of hyperbole and amnesia that has enveloped everything from Laserdiscs to CD-ROMs. Ill-fated 3DTVs provide another apt example, but their bulky glasses seem downright svelte next to VR specs, which look like a cross-breed of ski goggles and a ViewMaster.
But VR is also a very different proposition than 3D and HD in that those advances were largely about putting old wine in new bottles, necessitating new tools to capture imagery in higher resolution, but not requiring much change to the content itself. VR, however, will likely require a redefinition of programming.
“We’ve learned you have to create the content for the experience; just converting what you’ve got doesn’t work. You don’t get the immersion you’re looking for,” said Warren Mayoss, head of technology product development at DreamWorks Animation.
Mayoss’ team at DWA has been working for the past few years with Oculus and USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies to address what may be the most important question of all in this sector: Just what is VR video content, anyway? Creators are already experimenting in a world where the conventions of contemporary filmmaking — such as pans and cuts — are verboten. Figuring out what consumers want in a new medium could yield years of frustrating trial and error, though with enough patience and luck, the new medium could spawn its own version of “I Love Lucy,” which some say accelerated the adoption of television.
In 2014, the absence of devices in the consumer market meant content was being created primarily for events like Comic-Con, where fans queued up to don goggles that offered shortform experiences that skimp on full-fledged narratives in favor of simply re-creating environments from existing intellectual property — from “Game of Thrones” to “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
“The market is nonexistent really,so you have a lot of creative people wanting to make stuff for installation-based things,” said Cory Strass-burger, a producer for VR who has created content for clients including NBCUniversal and Lionsgate.
The hope is that as the market begins to mature and VR hardware makes its way into homes, original IP in longer doses will be possible. But existing content won’t be entirely useless in a new virtual world. There is the prospect that, as with 3D, some existing content already consumed in SD or HD could be shot in VR as well, a concept sources say has been experimented with, though there are no known plans in place to make that a reality on a regular basis.
While there is a limit to the visual complexity possible in mobile applications like Gear VR and Google Cardboard, content makers are hoping the experience will be dazzling enough until PC-based VR hits the market with more processing power capable of richer imagery. Oculus should be ready for the latter market with its highly anticipated Oculus Rift by summer. Sony has yet to announce when Morpheus, its VR device for the PlayStation4, will be ready for consumers.
When Morpehus is in place, video-games will obviously comprise its killer apps. The conventional wisdom on VR is that it’s more conducive as an extension to gaming than it is to filmed entertainment. But Mayoss believes such thinking is mistaken. Gaming, he maintains, may be too much of a leap for newcomers to VR. “We feel linear video is the way you can ease people into the experience,” he said. “We’ve done the testing, and if you’re not careful, the experience can be really uncomfortable, particularly high-activity interactivity. A more passive linear experience will address that.”
DiCarlo said Samsung believes vidgamers represent the most likely consumers of VR, but the company is aiming wider. “If VR is only ever for gaming, it is a good business,” he noted. “Expand it past gaming, it will be a great business.”
The virtual platform certainly will need to make a good first impression on audiences, because if VR doesn’t find traction, negative press will be just the beginning of its problems in an era where social media could amplify bad buzz effectively enough to sour the public on further innovation.
That makes for multiple perils for this first wave of VR investors and producers: Make too big a bet, and risk losing too much money if consumers aren’t interested; move too fast, and even the coolest application may not catch on if it’s too far ahead of its time. Invest too modestly or move too slowly, and there’s the potential of ceding the marketplace to a more aggressive competitor.
Picking the right horse to ride is also complicated by a technology bound to undergo significant evolution. There may be one under way already with Magic Leap, a highly touted firm that inserts VR footage into live-action programming. Google is its lead investor.
“If Magic Leap makes projection-based VR the thing we need to focus on at certain point, then we want to be flexible enough to transition to whatever the right thing is at the right time,” said James Milward, president of Secret Location, which produced a VR experience for the Fox series “Sleepy Hollow.” “VR is an optimal platform that we’ll go hard in, but we won’t be boxed in.”
For now, Gear VR is the focus for developers. At launch, its content is free to sample, in the interest of attracting as many users as possible. But at some point in the first half of this year — even Samsung can’t be sure of the exact timing — a business model will kick in. In addition, Gear’s initial 20 video apps will bloom into a deeper offering.
Keep in mind that the Gear VR isn’t exactly a mass market product. The Innovators Edition is primarily for creators and developers, but the hope is that a group of VR enthusiasts who don’t have any business interests in the technology will get hooked and evangelize their affinity. “It took 40 years to solve the technology problems, but VR’s cultural curve begins today,” said DiCarlo. “It’s the start of something new, but in three to five years, it will be a meaningful phenomenon.”