The Case for VR

Live Planet VR camera system “Explorer” model

Most people have little, if any, experience with Virtual Reality. Certainly nobody is making money today producing content in VR. So, who cares? Will VR ever matter? Isn’t this the same hype as 3D TV all over again? Why take the time to read this article, let alone write it?

There are many barriers to those who have historically been interested in producing and experiencing VR content, including significant production timelines and post-production costs. Then there is distribution — who will see it? Who even has access to the proper headsets? From that limited number of people, who will want to experience the content you are going to create? Can people view this same content without a headset? Where can they find it? And, of course, what is the ROI?

These are just a few understandable questions being asked by skeptical content producers, agents, entertainment and marketing executives, coordinators, assistants, receptionists, temps, Uber drivers, random people on the street…anybody who even entertains a conversation with me about VR. Many of them have had bad experiences working with new technologies in the past. With all these potential challenges, why should they even bother with VR?

As a VR camera system beta-tester and content creator, I understand these issues. I’ve been dealing with them during pitch sessions and in-depth talks with networks, studios, agencies and production companies. I want this to be a viable business for content creators as much as anyone. And, this may come as a surprise to some, but I am quite confident we are much closer than most people think to mass adoption of this revolutionary technology.

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Using Venture Capital pocketbooks, a handful of the largest VR companies (NextVR, Mandt, Jaunt) have each been able to fund media partnerships to develop their own proprietary systems. There have been significant advancements in the technology through some of these partnerships (NBA/NextVR), but just about all of the major VR companies recently suffered setbacks, including significant layoffs at some companies and the closing of others altogether. On the surface, one might think these are dark days for the VR business, but, as you’ll see, this may be the opportunity to get in after the smoke (and hype) has cleared.

While most VR production companies have recently been hit by hard times, major tech media players are pushing forward. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple have each made huge investments in this technology and continue to announce more products for the VR marketplace.

Also the quality of the content itself, both creatively and technically, is slowly getting better and more desirable. The resolution of the NextVR/NBA livestream greatly improved in the 2018 NBA Finals, looking far less like a 3D video game on a movie screen and much more like experiencing courtside at an actual game. It was very impressive!

Last year, Coachella offered a livestream VR channel with several 3D camera angles; the Mission Impossible franchise released bonus VR behind-the-scenes footage of Tom Cruise flying in the film’s helicopter scenes; and Destination VR locations offering arcade style gaming experiences slowly began to appear in local malls around the U.S. Still, it seems that nobody is making any money. When will that change?

Sooner than you think. This is why:

Production — Extremely high-quality VR production is about to get very cheap. Traditional high-end virtual reality production consists of several video cameras recording simultaneously. This system of cameras is spatially mounted on a sphere so the field of view is covered 360° in every direction. After recording, the videos are digitally “stitched” together in order to create the 3D 360° world that one experiences when they put on a headset. Stitching takes time and costs a significant amount of money, and it is not a perfect process. Production resources are often allocated to manually go in afterward and clear up missed stitch lines, frame by frame. It is painstaking, meticulous, and expensive.

In order to livestream their NBA VR content, NextVR brings a semi-trailer truck of computing power to each location in order to process the stitch in real-time and send it up into the cloud for distribution. Their proprietary cameras under each net are large and bulky, offering just a few viewer angles. The experience is jerky and not ideal for watching an entire game; however, a few minutes of clips and highlights can actually be quite fun!

Today, VR camera systems are beginning to appear in the marketplace that offer real-time stitching, where that process actually happens inside the camera! Real-time stitching is the ‘Holy Grail’ of VR production, enabling livestream capabilities, greatly reducing the cost, and practically eliminating the post-production process. This will shift the cost curve and risk factor paradigm in creating this innovative content.

Distribution — Headset prices are experiencing a significant drop in price, which should help drive adoption. The most passionate VR enthusiasts have been able to purchase complicated and expensive ($600-$3,500) VR headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC Vive since 2015; Microsoft released HoloLens in 2016. This price barrier is obviously unrealistic for most consumers, especially since availability of desirable content is so limited.

Google Cardboard, a low-cost ($15) entry-level VR headset, has been available since June 2014. It works with any smartphone and is actually a surprisingly good way for somebody curious about the technology to get a taste of VR. Promotional, branded, cardboard goggles can be purchased in bulk quantities for just a few dollars each.

Last May, Facebook released the first mass market consumer-facing VR headset, the Oculus Go. For $199, this device is essentially a computer that sits on your face. It is very easy to navigate around inside the virtual world, watching Netflix, browsing the Internet, and, of course, watching VR content. Personally, I love my Oculus Go! And I am not alone, with over 1 million units sold in less than a year.

Gamers, Digital Natives, and Millennials are already early adopters of this technology. PlayStation has sold over 4.2 million VR systems that plug into the PS4. In February, EDM artist Marshmello played an in-game set on the popular video game Fortnite, reportedly mass-attended by 10 million players (and their dancing avatars.)

Up next this Spring for Facebook is the Oculus Quest, projected to sell over 1.3 million units this year. For $399, this headset will reportedly offer the user ability to lean in and out of the VR experience, where Oculus Go only allows left-right-up-down tracking.

Research firm IDC projects VR and AR headset sales will climb to 8.9 million units sold in 2019, up 54.1% from 2018.

Apple will also get into the VR game, with their 8K resolution VR/AR headset announced for 2020.

Perhaps most importantly, YouTube and Facebook started allowing content creators to upload and livestream 360° 3D content on their platforms last year.

Infrastructure / 5G — High-quality VR requires very fast data connections, especially during live events. VR files are enormous and must be significantly compressed before they can be viewed on a player, like YouTube, or on a smartphone that is usually placed in a Google Cardboard box or attached to a plastic Gear VR headset. A 4K VR image will be reduced to standard definition when pushed through LTE or 3G funnels.

When Google Glass was released in 2012, the problem was not the hardware. The technology didn’t deliver an experience as promised because there was no network infrastructure and global broadband adoption to support the hardware. People could walk around all day long with their Google glasses on, expecting a Terminator-like experience, but not enough data could get to the interface in a timely, usable way. VR technology today suffers from a similar issue, thereby hurting the user experience, which, in turn, hurts adoption.

In a way, it would be better to have not rolled out VR until this issue was solved, but we can unfortunately only hope that users who walked away from VR for this reason will be willing to give the technology another try.

The deployment and implementation of 5G, the next generation of Internet, will provide the backbone necessary for files of this magnitude to be viewed properly without any degradation in resolution. 5G will soon become ubiquitous and we will all walk around in a cloud of transferring big data. Files for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Volumetric Video, and any of the other wonderful things we can imagine, will be at our virtual fingertips because big data will be omnipresent. I saw my first Verizon 5G commercial just a couple of months ago; the race to 5G is on! Our world will change soon, and we will perhaps see the return of Google Glass!

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After decades of minor technology advancements, VR is finally at its tipping point today. I believe all of the pieces for mass adoption will fall into place within the next 18–24 months. All of the historic and costly problems associated with VR production, distribution and consumption will soon disappear, freeing up audiences and content creators to explore this exciting new terrain. Interested fans, audiences, marketers, consumers, teachers, students, soldiers, artists, doctors, patients, architects, designers, realtors, homebuyers, adventurers, anybody and everybody will create and engage in dynamic new experiences — in some cases, life-changing experiences.

The time is right now for content platforms and marketing innovators to build their VR libraries, or risk falling behind. I’ve been pounding the pavement for the past year preaching this message to anybody that will listen.

VR simply must be experienced, because it is inevitable. The technology all exists today — finally. It is now just a matter of getting it into your homes, in your hands, and onto your face!