Back in 2014, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey boldly declared to PAX East attendees that VR devices would and should replace television sets. VR headsets, he claimed, would be cheaper for consumers, less destructive to the environment, and overall a more dynamic viewing experience.
His claims received a healthy dose of skepticism at the time. But cable and network TV companies have taken his prediction to heart - they've already begun investing heavily into virtual reality in the past few months.
Comcast and Time Warner bankrolled millions into NextVR, a live-broadcasting VR company that recently signed a five-year deal with Fox Sports to broadcast professional sporting events. Disney contributed to a $66 million funding series to VR startup Jaunt. Immersive Media's 360-degree cameras have been rented by everyone from ABC News and SyFy to National Geographic and Conan O'Brien for new programming and advertisements.
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Traditional television is already hemorrhaging young, cord-cutting viewers. By contrast, 97 million people will spend $14.5 billion on VR hardware and content by 2020. If you're one of those 97 million current or future users, it's important to know that these networks and cable companies fully intend to recoup their investments.
That's why, in recent months, we've seen ad-free primetime broadcasts of political campaigns, major sporting events, and late night television, among many other demos. Networks and filmmakers are hiring VR companies like NextVR and Immersive Media (IM360) to show early adopters that VR isn't just for gaming or indie projects. It's the future of all entertainment.
We spoke with IM360 and NextVR about their plans and predictions for the near future of how live VR broadcasts will work.
The first generation of VR broadcasts
NextVR's camera setup for Opening Night of the 2015 NBA season in Oakland, California
Virtual reality is still a nascent technology. Filming and broadcasting live events in VR comes with all sorts of benefits and challenges not found in traditional filming.
With traditional broadcasts, studios set up cameras throughout a studio or stadium with the ability to rotate and zoom in with ease, and the studio editor cuts between different feeds that best represent the current action. By contrast, a VR camera is meant to effortlessly capture all of the surrounding action close up and allow the user to choose where to focus.
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Filming 180-degrees or 360-degree video isn't as simple as placing a VR-specialized camera somewhere and letting it run. These cameras must take the feeds from multiple lenses filming simultaneously, then stitch them together instantly into one feed to broadcast live in high definition. Needless to say, this makes filming live events difficult unless you have the proper equipment and staff that know how to set things up.
NextVR's website claims they are "the only company capable of transmitting live high definition, three-dimensional virtual reality content over the Internet." IM360's six-lens cameras, meanwhile, can capture "more than 80% of the full 360-degree sphere" for live recording.
Even if networks lease the best hardware, however, problems arise when they don't necessarily know how to use it. After viewers of a recent VR Democratic debate complained that the broadcast was blurry and too far away from the candidates, NextVR co-founder David Cole explained to the Wall Street Journal that CNN's setup prevented them from placing their cameras in a way that would have provided full 360-degrees coverage. They have to be close enough so they will be clearly visible to the standard TV broadcast.
One 180-degree angle of the Democratic Debate
Ideally in the future, cable networks must commit to virtual reality as a legitimate alternative to television broadcasts, once the number of VR users rises enough to justify the costs and disruption.
NextVR operates under the assumption that once the number of VR users goes up, they could televise a huge slate of games with enough notice.
"The technology is mature. We can turn it all on right now," said NextVR co-founder DJ Roller. "But it's a practicality issue, how much can we roll out at once. We could turn on 10 games, 50, 100 as demand grows."
He stressed that that level of demand was far off until more people used VR regularly, but he also claimed that first-time viewers of their broadcasts tend to like what they see and come back for more.
Will VR work for long broadcasts?
Scan the Gear VR or Oculus library, and you'll find games, music videos, and short films, usually ranging from one to ten minutes in length. There are challenges in creating long-form content in VR, and the companies attempting to overcome these hurdles are fully aware of this.
"I think that consumers will want short form content (sub 30 minutes, maybe under 10) before they are willing to don headsets for hours at a time," says VR supervisor Aruna Inversin of Digital Domain - an Academy Award winning visual effects company that recently teamed up with IM360.
"With traditional camera work, you can engage the viewer with a small visual slice of a story, but with 360 camera work, you need to weave a story that encompasses all viewing angles, which may or may not be critical to the main story, but still work, or the viewer will become disinterested in the content."
I don't think the networks are ready to step into the VR fold just yet.
Broadcast TV is far too complex an ecosystem for a director to control all of its angles at once. Sitcom sets with multi-camera setups, for instance, rely wholly on viewers not seeing the 180 degrees behind the cameras.
In lieu of studios disrupting their broadcasts to make room for new technology, studios must instead target shows that best fit the virtual reality mold: exciting atmospheres, multiple camera angles, behind-the-scenes action, and of course, live experiences.
In other words, sporting events, talk shows, game shows (which could blur the lines between television and gaming in VR), and so forth; for these types of shows, being part of or observing the crowd can be as entertaining as the show itself.
Still, unless networks can reconcile traditional show formats with this new quirky technology, you get situations like the CNN debate broadcast, where the studio doesn't fully accommodate the cameras and leaving us with shoddy camera angles.
"I don't think the networks are ready to step into the VR fold just yet," admits Inversin. "The ones that do will have an edge when the distribution method matures."
IM360 has worked with networks to create immersive advertisements for shows like The Expanse, Waking Dead, and Quantico on their IM360 app, but creating virtual set pieces and designing high-budget shows for VR are two very different beasts.
Content providers have to contend with the clunky first-generation hardware that viewers will be using to watch their shows. Brad Allen, the executive chairman at NextVR, addressed this frankly in an interview with Fortune:
"Is someone going to sit three hours and watch a (baseball) game in virtual reality? Not today, but in the future when there are lightweight glasses, people will likely watch then."
Until it's easy to take devices on and off, long sessions in virtual isolation are impractical.
Changing TV from passive to interactive
NextVR's broadcast of Manchester United facing Barcelona in Santa Clara, California
Virtual reality's appeal stems from a user's immersion of a simulated world. This appeal suggests that broadcasts should do everything they can to make that world appear natural, and avoid calling attention to the fact that users aren't actually "there."
If networks want to overcome users' short attention spans, they must acknowledge that people will still check their phones and chat with neighbors during lulls in the action. Building features to keep users connected with friends and in control of their virtual environment is a must to regain attention. This starts by allowing the user to gear the viewing experience to his or her preferences.
"Select 360VR cameras in different locations allow the viewer to 'pick and choose' their own televised event, instead of being fed a stream of different cameras and a video switcher arbitrarily picking their 'best' view," says Inversin.
Ideally this means broadcasts will set up multiple cameras in locations that will provide key vantage points, such as above goals, near coaches and player benches, or even amidst the action. A perfect example of this can be found during the Big East college basketball tournament. NextVR and Fox Sports "will bring fans to center court, near the sideline player huddles and under the basket," according to a recent press release.
They will also exhibit "audio and graphics highlighting player stats, scores and game updates." In other words, VR streams nix the on-rails experience of TV but may still retain the peripheral data and statistics you've become accustomed to, assuming you want it.
When asked about social, non-immersive features, Roller stressed that users would be able to turn these features on or off depending on their preferences.
What could such features look like in the near future? Roller mentioned in-VR apps that could appear in your peripheral vision and could be pulled to the center of the screen during breaks in the action - think a Twitter feed or pop-up notifications catching your eye, or even a virtual tablet screen that you can pull up and observe.
Pardon this unobtrusive commercial break
Roller also asserted that viewers could potentially play games during commercial breaks or halftime - games sponsored by advertisers or themed based on the sport they are watching.
These features could potentially be applied towards advertising as a whole. According to Roller, monetizing content will come in many forms: "We could see free ad-supported content, some subscription, some a la carte."
In the case of NextVR, which has received financial backing from sporting teams like the Warriors and Dodgers, we could see sales of virtual front-row seats, where teams profit from hundreds of users paying for one spot and users ideally pay far less than a typical ticket price.
Roller also expanded on how advertising could fit naturally into the virtual space without breaking immersion.
"As you're watching an event from one camera angle, it cuts you to a 'VR commercial camera,' warping the user someplace else naturally...it dips to black, and then suddenly you're on a resort for a beer commercial."
He also suggested less drastic changes of scenery, such as the background set of a concert showing superimposed ads for a company, which would change based upon the region the user is in. If not that, advertisers could insert graphics or a screen into the VR world that appears in front of the user without completely disrupting the atmosphere - though it's likely the software would prevent you from just looking away from the ad by following your gaze.
Inversin believes monetization through advertising will blend in more seamlessly.
"Maybe there's a tagline constantly on at the top or bottom of frame, which rotates based on advertiser bids. Maybe it can occasional slightly pop up to the edge of the viewers' vision, a quick notification of content below that you might be missing.
"This is akin to the pop-ups on network television that advertise the next show coming up. There's a clever delineation that needs to be created to allow advertising in 360 space without cutting abruptly to a commercial, but instead, building the advertising content into the distribution platform."
The future of VR television
Ultimately, it's uncertain how soon we'll see virtual content getting a price tag, or if all you'll need is a cable subscription password to access the content.
Making virtual TV exclusive to certain subscribers, for example, could be the company's strategy to get younger users back, though this will undoubtedly prove unpopular. The fact is, putting a price on the content is the only way we will see VR coverage expand beyond occasional cool demos into consistent, required viewing.
The cutting edge techniques to capture footage in VR will constantly evolve over the years, or even months. As high-end PC headsets ship out, new mobile headsets will emerge and the cycle will continue and hopefully progress to allow better experiences.
When broached with this topic, Roller explained how quickly the VR experience should improve.
"The Samsung Gear VR development kit was much heavier than the consumer version that came out, and the next version will also improve. The Sony VR headset is heavy but it's designed to be worn comfortably for hours. We're already working with next-gen devices that are so much lighter."
In other words, the companies filming in VR can only sit and wait for devices to improve enough to make longer broadcasts more palatable to users; until then, early adopters or smartphone users with clunky Cardboard headsets may be out of luck if they're looking for easy, comfortable VR TV binging.
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