Hulu’s VR App Could Serve as Subscriber Acquisition Tool

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Virtual reality is still in its early adoption phase, but the apps for this new platform continue to flow. It’s abundantly clear that VR is becoming a key target for over-the-toppers that have cut their teeth building apps for the 2D multiscreen world.

Hulu, one of the biggest names in OTT, joined the mix yesterday with an ambitious app for the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR, along wiht a pledge to extend support to more platforms soon (if quality is the goal, then the obvious near-term bets are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive).

Though subscribers to the OTT service will, of course, get the most out of the app, Hulu, in a smart move, is also allowing non-subs to access the app’s 3D virtual films – it’s a great way to give consumers a taste of high-quality VR content. It also serves as a subscriber-acquisition tool because it gets people to download the app, take a look around, and maybe take that next step and pay for the service.

Like Netflix did last fall when it introduced its VR app on the Gear VR, Hulu also shared some of the technical and engineering aspects of its shiny new toy and how it enabled the platform to support not only Hulu’s library of 2D fare but to also allow users to view the new wave of 360-degree video content.

As explained in this blog post from Hulu’s VP of device platforms Julian Eggebrecht, one big challenge was to make the streaming of 360-degree content as bandwidth efficient as possible.

“We knew from the outset that the videos would have to have a resolution close to 4K, but we also wanted to keep the bitrates for streaming somewhat manageable, considering our first device would be the mobile Samsung Gear VR,” Eggebrecht explained.

Hulu, he added, addressed that by using the H.265/HEVC coded, which is about 50% more efficient than H.264, and by optimizing the video data.

“Raw video material for VR is usually presented in the equirectangular format, which was used to unwrap the spherical earth onto the flat, rectangular surface of a map,” Eggebrecht said. “We developed a new video conversion pipeline for deployment onto our servers, creating six images per eye in a special layout that then gets compressed. In the app itself, the viewer sits in the center of a virtual cube, and as each side of the cube is streamed in, the six images are projected into 3D space as cube maps which gives a perfect illusion of every pixel having an equal distance from the viewer.”

With the “foundation” of its VR platform now in place, Hulu now has the ability to add content and new gadgets to the mix on a regular basis, he said.