Written by Paul Whybrow
With my role as the secretary of the Sydney chapter of the VR/AR Association, I have had the perfect opportunity to discover for myself the world of VR close hand at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) held in Las Vegas in April 2017
According to research from Tractica, VR is set to explode in revenue. For VR hardware and content/creation tools, global revenues are set to shoot up from $500M (US) in 2016 to nearly double that in 2017, $2.2 billion in 2018 and nearly $5 billion by 2019.
So is it all hype or are there signs of Virtual Reality starting to head to a tipping point for take up?
VR had its own zone at the NAB event and apparently it is double the size of last year, however to put that in perspective it is still a tiny fraction of the show.
I loved taking the time to see all the stands and talk to those who had invested their time, energy and cash into this content creation platform. So here are my take outs from what I saw.
First the biggest fear. For some it is simply: Is this another 3D for TV? They recall when 3D was the next evolution for TV at home and Hollywood and the big producers created TV content to support the televisions being sold with 3D capability. The reality was that for many reasons it just didn’t take off and it turned into a very small niche product.
One of the biggest reasons for 3D not catching on, is that glasses proved to be a barrier. As a family gathered around to watch a 3D movie there was often not the number of glasses for all and so someone missed out. For many the shared experience lacked ease of use when you needed the glasses to participate. The need for special glasses, or in the case of VR a special headset is also seen as a barrier to VR take off across all content possibilities.
For the producers I spoke to, they certainly understand the issue and are looking at evolving technology and economics to resolve it. They know current headsets are still relatively expensive, sometimes clunky and a viewing issue. Despite that, many see a great future: headsets will tumble in price; there will be innovation to make them less restrictive in use; and the experience will win out in some way. As a former interactive TV producer recalled, early computers where seen like this and are a far cry from the personal mobile mega computer and entertainment device we all carry in our pockets today.
For me the exhibitors fell into four clear categories: the camera makers and production equipment; the stitching and sound; the creators; and the 360 LIVE champions.
· The first signs of falling costs of creation are clearly here. There were many cameras which are in the $2,500- $5,000 range, which is a fraction of the professional camera market leaders products, recently on sale at $60,000. For as little as $100, there were mini cameras that you can attach to your mobile and get some very neat 360-degree video.
The stitching and sound
· The next hurdle of VR creation is the blending together of all the different cameras to create one 360-degree image. This is called stitching, and is critical for the outcome to look smooth as you look around the 360-degree image. There is an associated challenge which is related to bandwidth of the complete image. There is a developing standard of 4K quality per eye. The problem is that you only need that quality for the part of image that you are looking at. Therefore, there needs to be a smart way to shift the quality of the image so that the most bandwidth is directed to the part of the image you are looking at.
· There were numerous companies all with their own solution on how to resolve both issues and provide a clear image that moves with you as you glance around the whole 360-degree image. Alas no clear standard yet, and so it can be confusing to prospective creatives.
· The same could be said for the fully immersive sound solution. Here there were several companies looking for creating global standards for the right sound for virtual reality so that the sound shifts smoothly and in context as you shift your head around the image.
· Personally, this was the most engaging part of the event. There were numerous virtual reality user cases from creating fantastic immersion used by travel companies, through enhancing education to providing a new interactive VR arena for sports fans.
· One of the best pieces I viewed was the One Republic video – kids, where you move from room to room and get totally immersed in the storyline whilst the singers play in a courtyard below. This type of 360 on You Tube and Facebook that can be viewed on mobile and tablets as well, seems to have high expectations as an entry point for new viewers to 360-degree content, that is easily accessible without the need of headsets and so may spark higher and rapid adoption in the coming year.
· Talking to creators there are still a lot of questions as to what type of content is really going to work and there seems no cone stand out that everyone expects to be a clear winner.
360 LIVE Champions
· There was a lot of interest in 360 LIVE content, which uses tablets and mobiles to give access to full views used for sports and other events. There seems to be a lot of experimentation going on where cameras seem to be placed on location to give a different perspective that is streamed live. Amazingly enough at the top end of production there were two impressive OB trucks, which are part of a complete set of 22 trucks which are being sent around the US just to provide full broadcast production facilities to provide 360/VR at major events. Talking to the owner he is confident they will be fully used this year!
What was my overall impression?
It was certainly evident that Virtual Reality is getting traction. First, there are economic factors, like camera prices falling, that will make creating content cheaper to do. Secondly there seems a lot of innovation around stitching and audio geared to making the end quality better. Finally there is a lot of momentum in finding creative opportunity to deliver VR without the current headset restrictions.
I can see the next 12 months are certainly going to be ground breaking in the world of TV which I am really looking forward to!
Written by Paul Whybrow