What’s On

A virtual reality check for the TV industry

Interest in virtual reality (VR) skyrocketed in 2016 with predictions of it being the first billion dollar year for this exciting technology. It is, therefore, not surprising that companies across every industry, especially those in the TV industry, are experimenting with VR.

The question now is, how can players in the TV industry go beyond the hype and capture the growth opportunities presented by VR?

Beyond the hype
VR was listed by Gartner’s Hype Cycle as one of the trends set to be “of the highest priority” for businesses over the next few years. According to industry reports, Asia Pacific ranks as the fastest growing regional market for VR (hardware and software) with an expected growth rate of 108.1 per cent from 2015-2020. Given the rising consumer interest in VR, it is little wonder so many companies are chasing this rapidly-growing opportunity and TV companies are no exception.

There has been a host of pilot schemes taking off among the biggest names in the industry. Comcast and Time Warner invested in NextVR, a live-broadcasting VR company. Sky, has also teamed up with Google to launch Sky VR Studios and the Sky VR app, with indications that it will roll out VR across more of its products in the future.

While it is almost certain that VR, with increasing consumer demand, will continue to achieve high adoption rates in various niche areas, the industry should resist the urge to get carried away and sort the commercially-viable prospects from the bold promises.
It also must overcome negative hype as a result of high expectations and adjust to the challenges that will bring, if hopes of high growth adoption are ever to be achieved.

The VR playing field: immersive vs interactive experiences
Most VR content today revolves around the gaming industry. Games are developed to be as interactive as possible while TV shows are traditionally passive experiences. Going from the small screen to VR may make going from black and white to Technicolor look like a non-event.
To understand the challenge facing content creators, we need to divide VR content into immersive and interactive experiences. From choosing what to watch, to interacting with objects within the show, there are various levels of interaction.

The more interactive types of content will also require haptic feedback to make the experience believable. And from putting users directly inside the content to merely watching it, there is a big divide between immersive and non-immersive experience.

While traditional shows and movies have a one-dimensional aspect, VR has a 360-degree view of the world. If you look straight ahead, as you would while watching TV, you will miss something: a character might sneak up behind you or a big reveal might happen while you are looking down. Conversely, the challenge for advertisers is to prevent users from deliberately looking away. TV teams will have to consider how to make the visual components interesting no matter where the viewer looks.

Currently, there are some creative solutions available: for example, characters whose reaction is triggered when you turn towards them, or music that fades when you’re not facing the main character. Shows such as VR Noir give an idea of how it might all work.

The narrative combines interaction and immersion by letting the user experience the story as the main character, as opposed to simply watching from the sidelines. Although the high number of short-form experiences signals the difficulty of carrying these techniques through a season of episodes, it’s an interesting showcase of what the future may hold.

Responding to the challenges to achieve real growth
Despite the potential, it’s difficult to ignore the hurdles that stand in the way of mainstream adoption. As with all new technologies, the high prices for acquiring the headsets or devices make VR less accessible to consumers, at least in the short term.

Second, it has to do with the user experience. Many consumers are put off by ‘kinetosis’, the discomfort felt when immersed in VR – a significant impediment for those used to the relaxing experience of watching TV.

On top of this is the fact that the technology is still in the early stages of development. 360-degree cameras have to film from multiple lenses simultaneously. This makes filming difficult as the director has to control all the angles at once. Also, studios have to somehow integrate these cameras without interrupting their existing shows. Sitcom sets, for example, rely on viewers not seeing the infamous “fourth wall” referring to the 180-degrees behind the cameras. For now, studios will have to target shows that best fit the VR format.

There is no doubt that the development of VR in the TV industry is going to be expensive and technically challenging. Companies are also expecting obstacles along the path to mass adoption. However, in the near term, providers can give consumers a VR experience by developing virtual cinemas or incorporating 360-degree TV. And as techniques to capture VR footage evolve, content creators can move towards virtual guided storytelling.

In the next five years, it is likely that VR will remain a niche practice restricted to short-form content. However, we foresee that gaming will have incorporated VR into the mainstream and TV will be close behind in the next decade. And now that companies around the world have begun to experiment with VR content, the stakes for getting the experience right–and continually improving it–have never been higher.

Stéphane Le Dreau is the General Manager, South East Asia at NAGRA.