NAB 2016: VR Business Already Full of Surprises, Experts Say

Las Vegas — Hollywood studios have made noise with virtual reality content, theme parks have put VR headsets on roller coaster riders, CNN live-streamed a presidential debate in VR, and even retailers are getting on board with virtual reality, to help sell everything from chairs to appliances.

But Philip Lelyveld, virtual and augmented reality initiative program lead for the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California (ETC@USC), could only chuckle during an April 20 virtual reality presentation at the NAB Show, when he shared survey results that showed what consumers want most with their VR.

An Ericsson Consumer Labs survey from late 2015 found that using VR for retail (64%), VR smartphone apps (62%) and movie experiences (57%) were the top three interests among smartphone users. No. 4 on the list? All-angle tech support.

The results just go to show that the young consumer VR industry is still feeling its way around when it comes to what works with VR and what appeals to the average customer.

“The modern era of virtual reality is less than three years old,” Lelyveld noted. And in just that short period of time, the technology had not only become easily accessible to consumers, VR’s been embraced by all corners of the media and entertainment space. “It’s a new art form, it’s a new storytelling tool,” Lelyveld said.

But according to Michael Davies, SVP of field and technical operations for Fox Sports Media Group, sports broadcasters especially are still in a trial and error period with virtual reality. “We’re still learning about virtual reality,” he said. “There are things you think are quite captivating but turn out [disappointing].” Something like boxing in virtual reality holds great promise, because it’s extremely close and intimate. A huge soccer field is a different story altogether. “Things that look far away [normally] look very far away in VR,” Davies said.

Jason Farkas, executive producer of CNN Money and the lead on CNNVR, the network's virtual reality storytelling and newsgathering initiative, said he’s quickly noticed that producing a live event in VR, while not easy, is a cinch compared to producing a fictional story that puts someone in a 360-degree environment.

“When dealing with a feature [story] product, you have to work that much harder,” he said. “You have to employ more features, more tools.”

That’s something Lelyveld echoed: putting on a live concert or story event doesn’t come with the same VR user expectations that pure storytelling entails. VR opens up a new “sense of empathy [with characters], because there’s nothing separating you and the characters. It’s very powerful,” he said. But telling a story vs. offering up a live event calls for more attention to the user interface used for the VR experience, Lelyveld added. . If a VR headset user is completely immersed in their experience, and suddenly a pop-up menu appears, the experience can be quickly ruined, he said.