VR Fills Out the Picture

Virtual reality is poised to become extremely real, and programmers and studios are lining up to take part in what’s expected to be a wild ride. 

Content creators are shooting increasingly more video, and they’re framing strategies around VR and the emerging world of 360-degree video production during this nascent phase of the market. 

This comes as inexpensive VR viewers, such as Google Cardboard, provide consumers with a gateway to the new format, evolving into more advanced platforms such as the Samsung Gear VR and the new Oculus Rift. 

Meanwhile, YouTube and Facebook have launched streaming portals that give an even wider audience the ability to access and explore 360-degree video without the need for a headset. At the moment, the uses are growing from such niche functions as employee training and medical diagnosis to more sophisticated applications such as advanced storytelling and entertainment. 

Compelling Content Needed

But like HDTV before it, this new VR/360 video format won’t get very far very fast if its sails don’t get filled with compelling content. To that end, several programmers have been stepping up and stepping in. 

Syfy, for example, created a VR app to promote its new hit series, The Expanse. Last fall, the National Basketball Association and Turner Sports teamed on a live VR stream for the season’s opening-night matchup between the Golden State Warriors, the reigning league champs, and the New Orleans Pelicans. 

On the distribution end, DirecTV recently introduced a VR app for Big Knockout Boxing (BKB), offering a 360-degree view of pre-recorded bouts. Fusion, the Univision- and Disney-backed millennials-focused network, created a VR unit last year. 

Alongside the big guys, the market is also attracting a wide variety of startups and other smaller, lesser-known content producers trying to make an impact in this burgeoning video format. Examples include Reverge VR, Baobab Studios, Bipolar Id, Subsurface Media, RYOT, Rapid VR, VRCinematic and Immersive Media.

Discovery Communications is gearing up even more aggressively, having booted up a division focused solely on this new format last August. In addition to making its library of 360 short-fare available on Facebook and YouTube, Discovery has also extended access to headset-focused platforms. 

Early on, Discovery is producing VR content in three areas—shorts that tie into existing series, some events-based content (a VR version of Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, for instance), as well as new originals, including a 10-episode travelogue series with Toyota called Let’s Go Places: Austin. 

That approach has helped Discovery create a steady volume of content. The programmer had about 60 pieces of VR content available at last check. 

Making that content available via Facebook and YouTube—using a mouse cursor or the navigation buttons, rather than a VR headset, to look around in different directions—also exposes it to a “critical mass” of viewers, Discovery Digital Networks executive vice president and general manager Suzanne Kolb said. 

“It provides a nice entry point for people,” she said. “Not everybody is going to be running around trying to find a [VR] headset.” 

For the near-term, Discovery’s VR productions will likely steer clear of longform content, because early indications are that consumers are more tolerant of watching so-called 360 video in shorter, bite-sized bursts. 

“For right now, the shorter form feels like it’s the right place for us to be,” Kolb said. “Ultimately, this is about improving storytelling…VR does that in spades, so it’s a natural extension.” 

In the nomenclature of the VR world, the terms “360 video” and “virtual reality” are used interchangeably; generally, though, “360 video” can be viewed without a headset on a flat screen, and “VR” takes it to the next level, viewed via a headset, putting the viewer in the center of that 360-degree world. 

The VR and 360-video movement has also put Fox in a sporting mood. Fox Sports has teamed up with NextVR to produce immersive videos for some of its boxing and NASCAR coverage and last year’s U.S. Open golf tournament. 

“There’s a bit of a schism in the VR world right now,” Michael Davies, senior VP of field and technical operations at Fox Sports, said. On one end, it centers on creating 360degree, spherical productions for platforms like Google Cardboard and Web browsers, he said. On the other, it’s about the higher-end VR content for headsets that creates a sharper, more immersive 3D experience. The latter, of course, requires a larger equipment commitment and is generally more expensive to produce. 

“There are two tracks, and we’ve been active in both of them,” Davies said, noting that the current set of work is a step beyond “experimentation” because it’s already being made available to anyone. 

It’s too early to know if 360 video and VR will morph into major initiatives for programmers, Davies said, but he likes what he’s seeing in the early going. 

“If anyone says they know what the business model for either of these things is, they’re probably stretching the truth,” he said. “But we know enough about this technology to know that it’s incredibly interesting. It’s a very compelling way to view sports.” 

And there’s still a lot to learn. “It’s kind of the Undiscovered Country of production… you’ve got to throw a lot away about what you know about sports coverage,” Davies said. 

Learning Curve 

Showtime is also in the eager learning phase, having produced VR experiences around recent Showtime Championship Boxing bouts, including last month’s heavyweight matchup between Deontay Wilder and Artur Szpilka. The benefit for boxing fans, for example, is that viewers can get a ringside view of the fight while also having the freedom to look around at the action surrounding it, including the reactions of others who are witnessing the bout. 

For last month’s fight, Showtime set up three VR cameras—one in each of the fighter’s corners and a third in a neutral corner. Adding a third camera gave Showtime an extra angle that made it easier to make cuts and transition for an immersive viewing experience on platforms such as the Samsung Gear VR. 

For the VR production, Showtime also spliced in a 360-degree view of the fighters’ entrances and some shots from the locker room as Wilder was warming up. 

“Everyone is learning every time that we do it,” Ken Todd, vice president of video strategy and emerging platform marketing at Showtime, said. “In addition to creating some interesting content, [a big goal] is to make sure that we’re not jarring your senses in any way and making you feel uncomfortable.” 

One challenge is to edit the fight to make it feel familiar like a TV broadcast, yet still deliver a “brand new experience,” Todd said. 

And that content is getting lots of exposure on the YouTube and Facebook 360 video-streaming outlets. For example, Showtime’s VR/360 production from the Wilder-Szpilka bout, at last check, had generated almost 2 million views and more than 38,000 “likes,” and the one posted on YouTube had accumulated 632,109 views. 

“That [distribution] really helped us reach our fans,” Todd said. “But it also extended the reach for people who are looking for 360 content as well as sports fans, in general, who might be interested.” 

Showtime is also thinking about how it might apply VR and 360 video to the programmer’s scripted programming, Todd said. 

“It’s obviously a different animal,” he said, noting that sets aren’t built to accommodate 360-degree views, among other problems. However, it could open the door to the creation of some complementary behind-the-scenes content. 

“It opens up a new way to storytell,” Todd said. “We’re still in an exploratory mode there…but it’s important for us to be testing and learning now.” 

VR is also becoming an attractive area for new studios that are specializing on the medium. 

Baobab Studios, a Comcast Ventures-backed outfit, is already tapping into this new market. The Redwood City, Calif.-based startup, fresh off a $6 million “A” round, has released a trailer for its first animated VR effort, Invasion!; showed a longer version of that trailer at last month’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah; and will present the world premiere of the full-length feature in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. 

Baobab’s first effort is in the range of five to six minutes in length. The studio expects to produce future animated VR fare in the five-to 20-minute range. 

“We are gearing more toward the shorter side, because we’ve had preliminary data [showing] that’s the amount of time most people want to put these headsets on,” said Maureen Fan, CEO and cofounder of Baobab Studios and a former Zynga executive. “We want to make sure that those audiences are comfortable and they can watch in bite-sized pieces.” 

Baobab Studios, which could release a handful of short animated titles this year, is still looking at different monetization models, but is steering toward ad-free, “premium” content that can be offered on several platforms, including the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, she said. 

As for Invasion!, it will be interactive to the viewer. “You’ll be a character in the film itself,” Fan said.

An Emerging Bandwidth Buster?

Pay TV programmers are rapidly developing strategies for VR and 360-degree video, but what will this emerging medium mean for distributors?

Cable operators might need to ratchet up the bandwidth if VR usage truly takes off. That’s one of the things CableLabs has discovered during its ongoing studies on VR.

For a high-end, wired headset such as Oculus Rift, streaming video at 40 Megabits per second is the “low-water mark for a good experience,” Steve Glennon, the principal architect at CableLabs’s Advanced Technology Group, said.

However, new smartphones, which can be paired with headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR, might be able to achieve that at 20 Mbps when content is encoded in HEVC/H.265, a codec that’s about 50% more efficient than MPEG-4/H.264.

And that’s for today. CableLabs is already trying to figure out what the world will look like (and what the bandwidth requirements might be) three to eight years out. “There’s a lot of room for the resolution of [VR] to improve dramatically,” Glennon said.

One thing that’s grabbed Glennon’s attention is a Samsung initiative that would seek to cram an 11K display into a smartphone form factor in the coming years. That sort of resolution (11,264 by 6,336 pixels) on a 5.75-inch screen would seemingly be targeted to future head-mounted VR devices, Glennon said.

Can cable keep up? CableLabs thinks so. The industry, he said, is in “fantastic shape” with the DOCSIS 3.1, a new multi-Gigabit spec for widely deployed hybrid fiber coaxial networks.