VR is concentrating minds in Hollywood and beyond. But what is its significance for broadcasting? David Wood investigates
Are we on the threshold of another television revolution similar to the introduction of colour or multichannel? There is a lot of excitement around virtual reality in show business and media circles. But can broadcasters successfully deploy VR – or will it turn out to be as ephemeral as the recent commotion over 3DTV?
VR promises to enthral viewers with a pulse-quickening range of new immersive entertainment experiences. It is already making waves in Hollywood, where film studios such as 21st Century Fox are investing in the technology.
You can also imagine it being used to enhance a crime drama, to give viewers the ability to explore a scene for clues.”
Undoubtedly, some of the world’s biggest media companies are excited about the prospects for VR. Facebook kick-started the VR craze two years ago with the $2bn acquisition of Oculus VR, whose $600 Rift headset goes on sale worldwide next month.
Mobile-phone manufacturer HTC is also planning a headset launch. Last year, Samsung launched its Gear VR headset, and Google, Microsoft and Sony are busy readying their own VR hardware offerings.
For these big players, most of the investment in VR content to date is in gaming; the prospect of immersive VR on Xbox and PlayStation is expected to be a big driver for the future of video games. But what significance does VR hold for television?
There is no doubt that broadcasters are keen to join the party. To date, the genres where we have seen the most experimentation are entertainment, natural history and live events, particularly music and sport.
When broadcasters talk about their involvement with VR, they are talking about 360° video, where the experience is only accessible from a fixed, predetermined point.
True VR, where viewers are able to move around autonomously in a virtual world, is still best experienced in VR games.
A third type of VR, augmented reality (AR), has virtual components inserted into the real world. AR as a product is still some way off; Google and Microsoft remain distinctly in the R&D phase.
Given the chastening experience with 3D, broadcasters are taking a cautious approach. The BBC has experimented with 360° video versions of shiny-floor entertainment shows Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice UK.
Meanwhile, Atlantic Productions has produced a VR spin-off of BBC One series Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, reportedly booked solid for the next three months at London’s Natural History Museum.
The show’s producer, Atlantic boss Anthony Geffen, declares: “What VR does best is extend the journey. It’s an incredibly powerful medium, which we don’t think will compete with TV, but will enhance it.
“Great Barrier Reef, the TV show, piqued your interest and the Reef VR experience takes you further. You can also imagine it being used to enhance a crime drama, to give viewers the ability to explore a scene for clues.”
Atlantic has more high-end VR in the pipeline aimed at exhibitions and museums; Reef and its VR forerunner Life have been licensed to museums around the world. “There is a real appetite for this kind of content,” insists Geffen.
Sky, often a pioneer in technology, spotted the potential of VR two years ago. It invested $1.65m in Jaunt, a West Coast VR company boasting its own brand of hi-tech “cinematic VR”.
The broadcaster has used Jaunt’s expertise on a broad range of productions. These include the drama Penny Dreadful, boxing, motor racing and a 360° Sky News report on the migrant crisis. The latter is viewable on mobile via the Jaunt app or as a piece of 2D, 360° video on YouTube.
Says Sky News Executive Editor John McAndrew: “We were quite amazed by the results. What occurred to me instantly was that it is a completely immersive experience. It’s as near to being there as possible.
“You can see the migrant’s footprints in the sand and it’s really very moving. We are keen to do more.”
For McAndrew, the biggest drawback is the time it currently takes – up to a week – to create a VR report. However, with Jaunt’s own production facilities coming to London, the turnaround time for reports should be cut drastically.
The Sky News team’s next VR shoot is under wraps, but expect more soon.
Virtual Reality is going to be one of the major beneficiaries of the smartphone revolution
“It really suits stories where you are giving people an insight into something they wouldn’t ordinarily see, taking them to places they wouldn’t ordinarily get to,” says McAndrew.
“It would have a natural fit with some of our big foreign stories, but it wouldn’t suit a conflict-based story as the [rather pricey] camera has to sit still for a period of time.
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to do a VR version of Prime Minister’s Questions or The State Opening of Parliament and offer a new perspective on these colourful occasions?”
Sky Director of Corporate Business Development Emma Lloyd stresses that VR enjoys one big advantage over 3D – audiences can sample VR on their smartphones.
She predicts: “VR is going to be one of the major beneficiaries of the smartphone revolution, where penetration is already very high.”
Mobiles enable people to consume VR content by downloading VR apps and watching on low-cost Google Cardboard headsets.
“At Sky, we are assuming that Cardboard will be the dominant headset for consuming VR for the next 12 to 18 months. Penetration of the more-expensive, higher-quality headsets will remain low,” Lloyd believes.
She adds: “So far, we have done around a dozen VR pieces but, over the next 12 months, we are ramping up short-form VR across news, sport, entertainment and movies. Our objective is to learn and build expertise.”
Early indications are that VR appeals to younger audiences and could even be used to inject new life into ageing entertainment formats such as The X Factor.
According to George Kapellos, Head of Marketing and Partnerships at VR specialist Mativision, VR could be an important weapon for traditional broadcasters to combat the growing popularity of online players such as Netflix, Amazon, Google and YouTube.
This threat was underlined in a recent report from consultancy LEK. It highlighted the increasing preference of the Millennial Generation for new content providers over legacy brands.
“The traditional players are more interested in VR because they need to find new ways of attracting audiences,” says Kapellos, whose company produced live VR for the 2015 MTV European Music Awards. “VR is certainly one way of attracting a younger audience, which we know is driven by smartphones and tablet use. In their world, traditional TV doesn’t exist. If you want to get to them, this is the best way.”
Producers wanting to attract younger audiences should also consider VR, he suggests: “We were talking to a sports producer seeking to get a sport included in the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee wanted the company to prove that it had a young audience. So it has to be on mobile and tablets. This is where VR and 360° video comes into play.”
The evidence is that it’s worked for Strictly, suggests Greg Furber, Creative Producer at VR specialist Rewind, which helped to make the BBC’s Strictly VR experience. “It’s opened up an entirely new audience, compared with the show’s predominantly older, female audience,” he says. “The Strictly VR has been watched by a much younger, male demographic.”
While 2016 looks as if it will be the year that VR takes off in gaming, it is clearly going to mark TV’s first serious experimentation with the technology. Everybody involved is hoping that it proves more durable than 3DTV.