Aretha Franklin

Virtual Reality Is Not Ready for Prime Time, But...

Amy E. Price/FilmMagix
Attendees participate in the Lonely Whale virtual reality experience at the Dell house at SXSW  on March 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas. 

Facebook, Google, Samsung and many others are vying to be leaders in the next wave of entertainment.

Hed: 

Dek: Facebook, Google, Samsung and many others are vying to be leaders in the next wave of entertainment.

Two years ago, Facebook drew inquisitive looks after its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, a developer of virtual reality gaming headsets that hadn’t even been released. Those headsets still have yet to be released -- the company has been giving demonstrations and made early versions available to developers -- but even the harshest critic of the deal would applaud Facebook for getting in front of a multi-billion-dollar market.

Virtual reality, or VR, is easy to miss. [Billboard took a close look about a year-and-a-half ago, which you can check out here.] VR hardware tends towards clunky, oversized goggles that are barely even available on the market, not to mention the lack of content. But companies from Samsung to HTC are prepping products in anticipation of a fast-growing market that could forever change how people are entertained, how they communicate and how they share experiences. Trendforce forecasts the VR market will rise from $6.7 billion this year to $70 billion in 2020. Microsoft’s HoloLens, Samsung’s Gear VR, Sony’s PlayStation VR, HTC’s Hive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift are already being positioned for the gaming market. In spite of the high costs of early headsets -- Sony’s PlayStation VR bundle of headset and the game VR Worlds game costs $499.99, and is far from the most expensive -- SuperData Research predicts a global base of 56 million customers will spend $5.1 billion on VR content and related hardware this year.   

VR has actually been around since the '90s. “Saying VR is new is like saying digital music didn’t exist until the iPod. This is a long time coming,” chirped Ted Cohen of TAG Strategic during a SXSW panel on virtual reality, “The VR Live Experience.” The term is often applied to 360-degree videos and simulated worlds in which the viewer interacts with computer-generated characters or other VR users. Augmented reality, or A.R., combines the real world with virtual objects.   

"It is the next real medium and it is not an extension of radio or TV or movies or even video games,” Chris Milk, CEO of Vrse, told Billboard in November. His keynote at SXSW was filled to capacity and had a line at least 50 people long waiting to get it. “It's really its own, unique thing. It's really in its infancy. What you're looking at is the equivalent of the first year of cinema."

Vrse is a good introduction to VR -- a company best known as driving the New York Times' VR content, which led the paper to send one million units of Google’s Cardboard viewer to subscribers in November. The Times has used VR to place viewers inside a refugee camp for Syrians in Lebanon and an encampment for refugees in war-ravaged South Sudan.

“By breaking free from the rectangular editorial frame of a traditional documentary film, VR invests the viewer with an uncanny feeling of agency, a sense of being able to look around for yourself,” the Times explained to its readers.

Games are often central to the VR discussion and drive much of the demand from early adopters, but VR has many other applications. Take meditation; Chicago-based Cubicle Ninjas, one of 13 VR/AR exhibitors at SXSW, showed off its guided meditation videos, which place the viewer in scenic locations such as a beach and Antarctica, giving a welcome contrast to the multitude of VR content which stimulates to the point of exhaustion.

The possibilities are endless. VR already allows prospective home buyers to remotely tour a home. Tourism boards can use VR to show potential visitors the sight and sounds of their local beaches, historic districts or architecture. There are numerous possibilities in health care, from helping surgeons to rehabilitating stroke victims.

From next-generation music videos to concerts, music could be part of VR’s next frontier. Vrse’s Milk believes it will be a strong category for VR because “when you go to a concert because you want to be in the presence of the human vessel the songs come through. Unfortunately, you go to a concert and there are 60,000 people and you can't all be in the front row. But you'd like to be, and you'd pay a premium to be. What VR does is offer you an experience of being in a far more intimate setting.”

Despite the heat, VR music content is light at the moment; Samsung’s VR store offers a handful of videos including an on-stage view of a Paul McCartney concert. A standout is Vrse's mind-bending, 360-degree music video for “Revolt” by the rock band Muse. Shot on location in Prague, the story-driven video is a look into the future of VR music videos, giving viewers the ability to turn and watch the video from any perspective, making each go a unique experience -- that can’t happen with a standard music video.  

The live music experience could be enhanced and redefined by VR Photos, traditional videos and fan-captured videos present flatter, two-dimensional images. VR provides 360-degree views and can transport a person through the stage and venue. The production crew can work with artists to capture video from certain vantage points and at certain times: when a singer moves to a part of the stage, when a guitarist breaks into a solo, and when a drummer takes over a song (the panelists repeatedly brought up Rush drummer Neil Peart when describing the ability to transport a viewer inside a drum kit). Cohen imagines a VR experience that allows a viewer to take the view of Courtney Cox in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video. “That’s what can happen if VR is done right,” he says.

Aside from the cost and bulkiness of VR headsets, there are problems and potential pitfalls. File size is a main issue. A 20-minute file can run 300 to 400 megabytes, large enough to require ample hard drive space and impractical for streaming. Differing file formats could create a battle like VHS versus Beta in the '70s. “There can’t be a format war,” says Cohen.

The market will eventually work out the kinks. Eventually, people unable to have experienced a concert will have a better vantage point that people in the front row. Fans can virtually attend concerts that have since disbanded. At the SXSW panel, VR veteran Marc Scarpa of SimplyNew talked of VR videos transcending time and space. “It’s a time capsule.”