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Looking Beyond TV, Cable Is Exploring Virtual Reality

Cable companies may be feeling the heat from consumers cutting the cord and switching to streaming services, but the industry is already looking for ways to get the most out of the next big thing: CableLabs, the non-profit research organization of the cable industry, has started to study virtual reality (VR), and CableLabs president and CEO Phil McKinney said during a recent interview that consumer excitement about VR was “off the scale” during field tests.

CableLabs is continuously exploring new technologies for its members, which consist of more than 50 of the biggest cable operators around the world. As part of that work, the organization also regularly tests new tech with consumers to see what spikes their interest.

Some of those recent tests have included 360-degree video experiences optimized for VR headsets, including a Taylor Swift music video as well as some travel and sports content. Those VR experiences got “by far the highest score we have ever seen” from consumers, said McKinney.

That excitement could one day translate to a good argument for consumers to upgrade their cable Internet connections. High frame rates and large picture sizes make VR streaming much more data-intensive than your average Netflix stream, with McKinney estimating that consumers may need Internet connections with speeds of up to 150-200 Mbps for VR streaming.

Experiences watched by more than one viewer at a time could have even higher requirements, and quickly approach Gigabit speeds. McKinney stopped short of calling VR the killer app for Gigabit Internet, but said that it could definitely be one of the reasons for consumers to ask for Gigabit speeds.

As part of its research, CableLabs is also looking into other issues that could make or break VR, with consumer’s pocket books being a big one. “The key is the price point of that headset,” said McKinney. Facebook-owned Oculus has yet to reveal the price of its Rift headset, which it intends to ship in early 2016, and competitors have kept mum on their pricing as well. In tests, consumers responded most enthusiastically to pricing below $249, said McKinney. Interest declined for pricing north of $300, he added.

But at this point, McKinney is more concerned about content than headset prices. There’s a lot of interest in VR in Hollywood, he said, but not enough commitment to actually produce mainstream VR content outside of the gaming space — and that could be a problem for cable companies looking to jump on the VR bandwagon. “The cable industry needs that content,” he said.

As for CableLabs, the organization will keep working on VR research, and even produce its own content to test it with consumers. McKinney said that VR is now one of the top four initiatives for CableLabs, and that it wants to take some of its field tests on the road next. “We need to make sure this plays in Iowa,” he said.

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