It’s still early days for virtual reality. Awareness is rising however, as headsets from Oculus Rift, Sony, HTC and Samsung have gone on sale over the last six months, piquing industry interest.
Proponents say virtual reality (VR) is more than an incremental experience such as 3D, but a step-change in media production and delivery.
“3D, as we know it, was really a technology looking for a problem to solve,” said Jason Rosenthal, CEO of Lytro, an imaging company working in the VR field.
“VR is really the next platform,” Rosenthal added, speaking on a VR-focused session at this year’s APOS conference.
“If you think of PC, internet and mobile, virtual reality and augmented reality is what we're going to see next. It's going to be better and more exciting than all of them.”
Nonetheless, the rudiments of VR are just starting to take shape. In terms of personal computing, Rosenthal compares current development to the launch of IBM’s first green-screen PC.
Development could be much quicker however, thanks to VR’s links to the mobile sector, benefiting from global scale.
“The market, the standard for technologies, the content, the monetization, is going to mature at a rate far faster than any medium we’ve seen before, and in big part because it’s all built on the back of the mobile supply chain,” Rosenthal predicted.
“Virtual reality is leveraging everything that took smartphones to over a billion devices today. We’re about to see the whole cycle repeat itself.”
Jens Christensen, CEO of VR hardware and software developer Jaunt, founded the company in 2013 after putting on a prototype Oculus DK1 headset.
“When I tried VR, it completely blew my mind,” he said.
“It was obvious that this was going to be big, even with that early technology which essentially was just animation,” Christensen added, also speaking at APOS.
“When we saw that, we thought: ‘why limit it to gaming and animation?’”
Jaunt has raised about US$100 million since launch, with Disney, Evolution Media Capital and China Media Capital taking part in its most recent round.
Some news and entertainment producers are also starting to experiment with short-form VR video, although the technology is more commonly used in video games so far.
VR is a medium in its infancy however, where companies need to develop a new ecosystem alongside demand.
Jaunt, for example, shares its hardware and software with content creators in return for a share of the distribution rights.
“What we’re really about is content, delivering fantastic experiences to end-users as efficiently as possible,” Christensen said.
“We don’t actually sell the camera, we’re not a camera company per se,” he added. “What we do is make it available to our content partners.”
At the same time, best practice in storytelling will develop in tandem with technology.
The clunky design of today’s VR headsets for example, combined with the way immersive content is rendered, makes it uncomfortable to watch long-form programming.
“Five to 10 minutes is about the maximum amount of time that people will be comfortable with the headsets, but as the headsets improve, the content will be longer,” said Drew Larner, COO of VR software and production company Vrse.
“As technology advances, the content will change as well and the storytelling and the ability to do things in VR – which you can't do in film and TV – will only continue to get better,” he predicted.
The ability to monetize VR video will also evolve, initially via advertising and one-off purchases before content volumes become big enough to support subscription.
Traditional advertising approaches such as CPMs may also need to evolve under VR, given that platform owners will be able to track eye movements.
“What that can mean to an advertiser could be enormous,” Larner said. “How that gets monetized remains to be seen. It's just a question of what an ad in VR looks like.”
Hollywood studio Lionsgate is moving on VR via games, creating a first-person shooter based on its John Wick movie for HTC Vive’s headset.
Launching the title on Vive opened up 125 million gamers on Steam, the gaming ecosystem owned by Valve, HTC’s partner for Vive.
“Contextual media files, alpha adopters…we definitely see that there's going to be some earlier traction with those players,” said Peter Levin, president of Lionsgate Interactive Ventures & Games.
Lionsgate is also considering VR as a promotional channel, with mobile apps for its upcoming film Now You See Me 2 for example.
“So we see again in the nascent stage, what a great way to get lift and awareness by coupling VR experiences to ginormous pieces of intellectual property,” Levin said.
“It has to be a commercial environment or none of us are going to be here next year to talk about it,” he added.
“So we're all aggressively working towards making sure that it becomes a thing.”