Written by Paul Whybrow
As the crowds of broadcast and technology professionals headed to see the latest and greatest at the first day of the NAB show in Las Vegas, I had a focus for my first day: to see how VR (Virtual Reality) and (AR) Augmented Reality had developed since I was last here.
A year ago there was a VRAR buzz, and so I was keen to see how that had translated into practice. So, I decided to immerse myself in three ways: listening to a global panel of VR practitioners; joining a few VR sessions at the conference; and then spending time on the exhibition floor especially in the designated virtual zone.
On the positive side, it is quite clear that some of the VR experiences are now more mainstream, as I spotted a number of equipment makers having VR experiences as part of their demos. VR is also making content plays, with NBC doing 55 hours in the recent Winter Olympics taking you up close to sports like speed skating, Fox Sports in the US for football, boxing and soccer with VR and 360 degree experiences and Sky in the UK with both sports, entertainment and some education applications. They are looking to produce some exciting content with the 2018 World Cup too.
From a financial point of view the estimate is that there has been $US 3.6 Billion of investment in AR and VR over the last 12 months. The rub is though, that AR is seen by many to be the lead driver for getting the lion’s share of successful consumer applicability ahead of VR which is seen to need a much longer success window.
The phrase that came up time and time again, was that VR is in an experimental phase. It is a medium that storytellers are starting to use in earnest in the education and medical environments, however in mainstream TV, there is still a long way to go before any real take off.
Some players have already put the brakes on as Nokia has stopped making their Ozo camera and even at the NAB show the Virtual Reality zone of a year ago has been replaced with an Immersive Story Telling Pavilion which covers all the elements needed to deliver more immersive experiences, with VR being just one of those.
If VR is seen as at an experimental stage, what are the challenges that are stopping the rapid takeoff with viewers?
The reality top 5 challenges:
· Headsets – For VR to really become a hit the experience needs to be creative, credible and comfortable. There is no escaping the fact that for many users they find the full headsets off-putting to wear and uncomfortable for any length of time. Where VR really works is where the viewer is cut off from surroundings and so undertakes often a singular and immersive experience. The result is that you give up the ability to be social or involved in the immediate environment. Until either the headsets become lighter and less cut off it will limit the types of VR activity viewers will be willing to do.
· End-to-end Infrastructure – Currently there is still no set end-to-end infrastructure that simply allows the creation, streaming and viewing of VR content. Solving the infrastructure standards and capabilities is a hurdle to overcome.
· Quality and bandwidth – When VR is mobile and streamed then maintaining quality of the image is not easy. For the 4K video that consumers may expect there is a requirement for a bandwidth speed that is well beyond what is generally available. It is a matter of the streaming speed, resolution and picture quality which are simply harder because of the sheer size of the image required for a 360 view versus a standard TV one. Compression is getting far better, and over time this has all the possibility of getting fixed.
· Unique Interactivity – experience from producers seems to point to the reality that the more a viewer is taken to a world which is impossible or very difficult to be placed by traditional TV, then it is more likely that viewers are willing to jump the other hurdles to experience VR. If you are transported underwater, on top of a mountain, in the middle of a cycle race or in the place of a boxer in a middle of a fight then it offers a view and experience that is truly special.
· Storytelling Value – where the medium is gimmicky then the novelty will wear off fast. The sweet spot that seems to be driving viewer value and enjoyment is where VR is used to strengthen a unique element without making viewers overwhelmed with motion sickness and is short in length.
Having listened and learnt from the experts, I would suggest the challenge in this experimental phase, is to keep creating and keep innovating technically to see where the medium will go as these challenges get resolved.
Last year I wrote that I could personally see a future in VR and I haven’t changed my mind. For me, when it works, it can transport you to an amazing world. At NAB my personal favourite was seeing the the work done by Cirque Du Soleil which brings to life amazing dancing and action by placing the viewer on the stage, which can just never happen in normal stage life.
So for the sake of immersive experiences, let the experimenting just keep on coming.
Paul Whybrow is the Managing Director and Creative Collaborator for Bodyboard Immersive Experiences – www.bodyboardie.com