Experts: Confusion Persists, Opportunities Exist in VR

Virtual reality may grab a lot of headlines, but it has yet to gain a comparable amount of attention in terms of consumer interest.

A new study from research firm Parks Associates found that familiarity with VR technologies is building slowly, as 63% of American broadband households know nothing about the technology, “leaving a wide opportunity for industry players to educate and market these new products and services,” the report noted. As of late November, about 3.4 million U.S. households, or 3.5% of broadband homes, own a VR headset.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that not enough consumers get the opportunity to try the technology. That’s key: nearly half who do try it say they enjoy it, and 15% who try it actually buy a headset.

Eduardo Yeh, cofounder and CEO of Selvz, a Torrance, Calif.-based VR video-platform company, said he thinks he has pinpointed some of the issues standing in the way: 360-degree video has been conflated to become synonymous with immersive virtual reality. And the most widely used “VR” headset around today is Google Cardboard … and that’s not the interactive VR experience that the business is actually selling.

“There’s a little bit of confusion out on the market, because 360 video can be experienced in a non-immersive mode, using your tablet, your smartphone and even on your desktop using your mouse,” Yeh said during a Dec. 5 webinar on the state of virtual reality. “Today, it’s common for people to bring up 360-degree videos when they are [discussing] VR, which is not the total representation of what video truly is.

“[And Cardboard] is almost a gateway into VR … very novel. People experience cardboard when brands do promotions and campaigns, but it is not something people go back to it every day, like the high-performing mobile VR systems like the Samsung Gear VR.”

Jeff Rubenstein, vice president of product marketing for Kaltura — an over-the-top and VR video technology provider, and founder of the VR Alliance — said that the 360-degree experiences being touted as VR have their place: simulated orientation experiences at a business, retail shopping, a dorm tour before you head to college and, yes, entertainment.

“It’s more realistic and satisfying than simply flat images or ordinary two-dimensional videos,” he said. But his colleague, Iddo Shai, Kaltura’s director of product marketing, pointed out that the difference between 360-degree video and VR is night and day.

360-degree is an advanced type of video, he said, “while with VR, you can actually be there.”

“You can be sitting at the side of the court, watching this game from right in the center, very close to all of the players,” Shai added. “This is why VR for entertainment is like a match made in heaven. We are talking about an experience that is unique, that is highly engaging for people who are looking for this type of experience. And when they get a chance to be in this experience, they will stay a long time.”

Entertainment will continue to be the No. 1 driver for true VR, Yeh and Shai agreed: The entertainment spender is willing to engage with the technology and pay a premium.

“The VR user makes a commitment to wear the headset and in VR, the moment you remove the head-mounted display, it means that the engagement is over,” Yeh said. “Making that commitment and teleporting inside VR is when you actually create compelling content, so you keep your customers in there, immersed.”

That distinction between simple, non-interactive 360-degree video and true, immersive virtual reality needs to be taken into account when a content company creates content for a VR platform, the webinar panelists agreed. It’s the difference between viewing and doing.

“How amazing would it be if you could actually put on those somewhat weird goggles, but at the same time transport yourself into essentially a movie theater, and be in that movie theater for the duration of the flight, and have a much better I think experience during that flight?” Shai asked.

One of the barriers to live VR is the relative infancy of the software needed to do the real-time stitching and encoding of the experience, he added. To date, Nokia’s Ozo camera and software combination is the closest that’s come to doing it right, Shai said.