VR comes to market

With media giants, internet firms and smartphone manufacturers investing in VR the sector is poised for massive growth.
360-video is already entering the mainstream, as some news agencies embrace the technology.
360-video is already entering the mainstream, as some news agencies embrace the technology.

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While the terms virtual reality and 360-video tend to be used interchangeably there is an important distinction. VR means a more immersive format, associated with head mounted displays being brought to market by HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Sony Playstation. 360-degree video on the other hand looks like the more mainstream version, of panoramic video viewed through smartphones with or without head-gear. Many of the technologies and techniques are the same, but it is 360-video which, through sheer accessibility, is already going mainstream.

Hollywood studios have lavished a lot of attention on VR, but it is 360-video as a news format, that is on the way. This summer pan-European news channel Euronews launched a virtual reality news reporting project with funding from Google. Euronews said it will produce regular multilingual 360-degree interactive news videos with finance from the Google fund, making it the first international news provider to “fully incorporate” 360-degree interactive video news into its regular workflow. YouTube will host VR coverage of the US Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

Meanwhile, internet service provider and media group AOL is making 360-video with AOL-owned properties like The Huffington Post and Engadget, after acquiring VR producer Ryot. AOL is also opening a live street facing VR studio on Broadway, New York in October.

It’s still very early days and the breathless predictions for its disruptive impact on everything from filmed entertainment to journalism need reigning in. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to expect that VR will not repeat the failure of stereo 3D.

JP Morgan Securities forecasts VR to be a US$13.5 billion industry by 2020 mainly comprised of hardware sales topping 89.3 million units. Sales of consumer gear will only rocket if there’s content to watch, but here too production seems to be growing at an astonishing pace.

HTC has a $10 billion venture capital fund with 26 partners intent on accelerating the VR ecosystem and Disney led a $65 million investment round in 360-video camera business Jaunt VR, as just two examples.

“Quality rather than quantity must be a critical consideration for the successful future of VR,” warns Carl Hibbert, associate director – entertainment content & delivery, Futuresource Consulting. “Done badly, it runs the risk of putting consumers off the technology.”

It’s a statement that was repeatedly applied to stereo 3D. The signs are that VR is different. “3D is a bolt-on to standard video, and doesn’t add much more perspective than your brain is capable of inferring,” says Ampere analyst Andrew White.

“This, in combination with its high cost and shortcomings, doomed it to failure. VR doesn’t compete with standard video in the same way, since there’s no way to convert 360-degree video to 2D while retaining the original context. VR should be seen as an entirely new medium, running in parallel or as a companion to TV and movies, rather than as an evolution of them.”

By 2020 in Western Europe, Futuresource expects an installed base of close to 30m headsets (including both smartphone-based versions and dedicated premium units like Oculus Rift/HTC Vive). What’s remarkable is just how accessible VR is becoming. Smartphones can act as a viewing platform for the ever growing number of headsets and, which, with content to fuel attraction, should see adoption grow rapidly.

“Samsung’s Gear VR should represent a more mainstream product with a broader base of customers than more premium hardware like the Vive and Rift but it too requires a flagship Samsung smartphone,” says White.

“This means that VR is not yet a good way to reach more than a niche group of millennials. That said, this is a fast moving space, and the release of Google Daydream may change this.”

Google Daydream, coming in Q4, is an advanced operating system for Android intended to boost 360-video content creation and upload to YouTube’s 360-platform. Google says that Daydream-ready phones, as well as a VR viewer and motion controller will be available this autumn.

Facebook has also launched a 360-video platform and is working on its own production system. Google is launching a cine-style VR camera to fuel content on IMAX branded experiences at a six venues launching this year.

Barely a day passes without announcement of a VR initiative. LittlStar, which has the backing of Disney, wants to be the Netflix of VR and has accumulated a library of professional content from Discovery, Showtime, online gaming giant Wargaming.net and fashion brand DKNY.

“Currently, there is a joint industry initiative to make the technology work and drive uptake by enticing customers to the platform with free content,” says Hibbert. “As soon as consumer payment becomes a core component, rights will become a major issue – whether that’s sports, concerts or other types of event.”

The OTT market is moving in the direction of VR with 67 percent of OTT companies believing VR is “here to stay”, according to research by Level 3, Streaming Media and Unisphere.

Viaccess-Orca has packaged an end-to-end live VR solution and tested it with TF1 and Sky Italia. Components include Harmonic ProMedia Xpress transcoder and ProMedia X Origin media server integrated with VideoStitch’s Vahana 360-video stitching software. Viaccess-Orca provided its Connected Sentinel Player for DRM, playback and services for interactivity and analytics.

“Operators have a vested interest in terms of optimising the image quality at the same time as reducing bandwidth lens to lens,” says Alain Nochimowski, EVP of Innovation. “For organisations which own rights there is clear interest in creating new monetisable experiences.”

Mark Blair, VP EMEA for Brightcove thinks there may be interesting product placement opportunities, taking the smartphone gaming phenomena Pokémon Go as a cue.

“If you overlay graphics, animation, text or information on top of a 360-video or VR broadcast and make it interactive you’ve got a monetisation model with click throughs to more information or click to buy,” he says.

“The opportunities are endless. The question is how you can make it efficient enough to become more mainstream. That’s where some of the challenges are.”

Where a Pokémon Go game app is played using video content is created on the device, trying a similar approach over VR goggles is more problematic.

“That’s where I feel 360-video as opposed to VR has a smoother path to being mainstream from a monetisation perspective. The use of goggles seems to be quite a key differentiator between 360-video versus a true VR experience. You have to get goggles into the hands of a large amount of end users for commercial models to really take off.”

Brightcove is supporting 360-video in its player technology. “Companies wanting to use a professional enterprise grade video solution can use our player technology (its PLAY online video player) to build an integrated experience,” he says. This means that, for example, brands with a VR digital marketing campaign can distribute it via Brightcove’s OVP and hook the campaign into marketing automation tools like Oracle Eloqua to track engagement or conversion to purchase, “something free platforms like Facebook or YouTube do not concentrate on,” says Blair.

While video games remains the big initial content draw for consumer VR – likely given a boost when Sony debuts Playstation VR in October – sponsors are also paying to brand live sports experiences. Automotive brand Lexus, for example, sponsored the VR user experience of The Open Golf which NextVR produced for Fox Sports. “We will test both subscription and single view pay per view models this year, mostly for Live Nation properties,” says Dave Cole, co-founder of NextVR. “2016 is a year of audience building. We are not going to put a paywall in the way of audience aggregation.”

Arguably the biggest production challenge is stitching the camera views together. When stitching is performed manually on recorded content, it usually leads to several hours if not days of laborious processing. Cinema style VR creation reportedly costs $10,000 per finished minute including compositing and rotoscoping.

That’s not feasible for broadcast which is why VR producers have tended to devise their own technique. “We take advantage of the fact that the cameras we use are not off the shelf but fully calibrated industrial units,” says Anthony Karydis, CEO, Mativision, a London-based company behind the VR live stream of the MTV Europe Awards, Muse and Sigur Ros concerts. “Developing our own players ensures total control right to the delivery stage. Our players are very mature and rich in features; there is simply no comparison with anything else in the market today.”

VR trending at IBC

IBC has made VR a conference theme reflecting its rapidly emerging impact on many points of media and entertainment.

Alexandre Jenny, GoPro’s senior director immersive media solutions, is an IBC speaker. He suggests that 360-video developers need overcome three main challenges.

“The first is parallax, the disparity caused with marrying different views from the different lenses of any multi-camera 360-rig,” he says.

A second challenge is editing the footage. This, says Jenny, is less of a technical hurdle than an editorial one. “The grammar of storytelling in 360-degrees, including when and where to cut, is still being worked through.”

Then there’s the live streaming and social sharing of content. In particular, Jenny feels that developments need to focus on making the VR environment more interactive. “Pokemon Go is a great example of gamification overlaid on live video as augmented reality. The question is how we can bring an interactive layer to full VR.”

“VR is enabling all of us to discover and experience so many fabulous new locations,” he enthuses. This is the last step before teleportation – I can be present without having to travel there. We are that close.”

Also at IBC, there’s a VR primer from Solomon Rogers, founder & CEO of Rewind. The idea of new visual and audio grammar is explored in depth by Simon Gauntlett, CTO of the DTV Group. He tackles issues like how one might create standards for live 360-video.

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