Welcome to the second edition of my newsletter. This week I explore virtual reality content. If you're thinking that virtual reality (VR) is all about gaming, then think again. Are you a sports fan? The US Open Golf Tournament was livestreamed in VR last year. A music fan? Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Jack White and others have experimented with 360-degree 3D videos. A movie buff? The 2016 Sundance movie festival, being held this week, will showcase thirty VR stories and three full-length VR feature films. Or maybe you just want to catch up on the latest news. There's an app for that, in the form of the New York Times VR app for your smartphone.
So virtual reality isn't just about gaming. It's the Next Big Thing in entertainment, media, social networking and a whole lot more. In this newsletter, I'll outline three types of VR content (other than gaming) that will shake up your world in 2016 and beyond. I'll also point out some promising VR content companies to watch out for.
Why 2016 is The Year of VR
To quickly set the scene, 2016 is the year that VR headsets - finally - hit the mainstream. The Oculus Rift is the most anticipated, since it is owned by Facebook. It's already on sale and the first headsets will be shipped in March (I've pre-ordered mine). Sony is another big player; its PlayStation VR is expected to arrive by the end of June. HTC Vive is the third big player and it will come out in April.
Ok these headsets all look kind of dorky, but never mind what you'll look like wearing one. What's more important is what you'll be looking at.
There are already solid mobile VR options too, including Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard. 360-degree 3D cameras are also a big driver of new VR content, as we'll see.
So the hardware is ready and will be in the hands of millions of people by mid-2016. Now let's focus on how VR will change content.
1. Live Sports & Entertainment
NextVR is one of the most promising VR content companies. It aims to broadcast big sporting events in 3D virtual reality. In October last year, NextVR streamed an entire NBA basketball game through its app for the Samsung Gear VR. The view was restricted to 180 degrees, but that was more than enough to deliver a compelling experience. According to the blog UploadVR, the view of the action was "low, at table level, with the scorer’s table at center court." Another VR blog, Road to VR, declared it "an exciting way to watch the game," because it was "a much more realistic POV [point of view] than you would get watching it on a traditional monitor."
Other events broadcast so far by NextVR include the US Open in golf and NASCAR. If I was to bet on one type of content (other than gaming) to take virtual reality to a mass audience, it'd be VR coverage of major sporting events. NextVR is a company to keep an eye on.
It's not hard to foresee a near future where entire television networks are VR. That's what big thinking CNET founder Halsey Minor is projecting, with one of his new companies: Reality Lab. At CES 2016, Minor showed off Reality Lab's first product, the Quantum Leap VR system, which livestreams 360-degree video content. Minor sees an opportunity to disrupt existing TV networks with such content. But take that with a grain of salt, because Minor has a chequered history and Quantum Leap is not yet on the market.
2. Social Networking
This is the billion dollar question for virtual reality: how will Facebook use Oculus to enable social networking via VR? The low hanging fruit is the 360-degree video. There are already plenty of video cameras on the market that enable ordinary people to take 360-degree videos and share them on Facebook. Take a look at Robert Scoble's Facebook feed for some examples.
But there must be more to VR on Facebook than putting on a pair of Oculus Rift headgear and watching a 360-degree video of your dog (that'll be my first use case!). When he announced Facebook's purchase of Oculus in March 2014, Mark Zuckerberg asked us to "imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures." Two examples he gave were "studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face."
It remains to be seen what Facebook will announce in terms of VR "experiences and adventures," but we can get a sense by looking at a startup like New Zealand's own 8i. This company is building a platform that enables you to interact with 3D video of real people. For example, watch this video of a woman with her new-born baby.
The following is 8i's description of its new portal for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. As you read it, I'd like you to imagine doing this with a Facebook friend: "You can now walk up to someone in VR who looks real and not computer generated, move around them, make eye contact, and feel true presence." That may be what Facebook is like in a few years.
VR will also disrupt movies. The latest Hollywood experiment is The Martian VR Experience, a VR spinoff of the movie The Martian. Created by 20th Century Fox in collaboration with the film's director Ridley Scott, the 15-20 minute "immersive adventure" puts you in the shoes of astronaut Mark Watney.
Perhaps more innovative is The Rose And I, a VR story from Penrose Studios currently being shown at Sundance. It's notable for going beyond 360-degree video and introducing more interactivity to the movie watching experience. Penrose has come up with something called “Touch Orbit” (“Torbit” for short), which allows the viewer to change perspective while watching a film. The blog VRfocus explains: "By swiping on the pad, viewers can rotate a ‘primary object’ in front to them to assume different viewpoints as the film unfolds."
Since we're discussing interactivity in VR, I'd be remiss not to mention the increasing use of VR by the porn industry. Tech blog Wareable reviewed the latest on that front (NSFW).
As for mainstream movies, VR is set to become a blockbuster technology. Ridley Scott is obviously exploring it and there are indications that Peter Jackson is working with VR too.
Those are just three ways VR will change the way we consume - and interact with - content: live sports and entertainment, social networking, and movies.
There are many other opportunities for VR to change our content. They include news (immerse yourself, safely, in a war zone using the New York Times VR app), retail (hunt for your next house using a pair of VR goggles), and fashion (try on a new pair of shoes in VR).
Of course most of what I've discussed is early stage. But if there's one thing I'd love you to take away from this newsletter, it's this: VR headsets aren't just for gamers. There will be highly compelling VR content for sports fans, music lovers, movie buffs, news hounds... whatever type of content you're into.
Lead Image credit: UploadVR.com
Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.