Within a brief span of a decade, we are on the verge of progressing from owning 3D home entertainment systems to donning virtual reality headsets. Traditional displays are on their way to obsolescence, and finely-calibrated VR offerings are poised to oust the TV as a primary form of mass content dissemination.
Google recently launched Daydream, their most recent VR headset to succeed Cardboard, and the latest in a long series of innovations that began with Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift in the recent past. The market is now flooded with VR offerings-Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Microsoft's Hololens, and Oculus Rift, among many others.
Experiencing an immersive storytelling experience is no longer mere speculation-the entertainment and media industry is waking up to the possibilities of high definition, three-dimensional virtual reality content.
User Experience and VR
To understand the kind of impact VR is having on the world of entertainment, one needs to analyze how it seeks to transform user experience intrinsically. It holds the promise of an engaging, interactive scenario, instead of relying on television's unvarying narrative format. Even in its most nascent form, VR blocks out surrounding stimuli and architects a more engaging experience for the user.
With the kind of advancements that have happened in the field currently, VR could help create point-of-view style documentaries where viewers could explore their environment. They could enjoy a hyper-immersive, exhilarating thrill ride, or a task-based, gamified experience that can have users racing against the clock in a competition.
From a commercial standpoint, businesses are focusing creating unobtrusive, lightweight, and cost-effective head-mounted devices to boost adoption rates. By 2018, more than 25 million head-mounted displays (HMDs) will be sold as immersive devices, according to a Gartner report. Also, close to 97 million people will reportedly purchase $14.5 billion worth of VR gear and content by 2020.
Tracing the Beginnings
Very often the world of gaming provides a litmus test for the viability of new technologies in entertainment. They provide a diverse audience for testing the usability of new immersive and interactive technologies.
Sony was one of the first companies to introduce consumers to the world of augmented reality (AR) through their PlayStation gaming consoles. Now, they are set to do the same for VR with the PlayStation VR. As a sign of things to come, Sony recorded a session with famed violinist Joshua Bell, which simulates the experience of sharing the same spatial area as the musician. The video, which was showcased at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, was shot in the VR format and incorporates 360-degree audio.
In recent years, the demand for interactive experiences and technologies in entertainment has increased manifold-as evidenced by a large number of movies that have been released in 3D or IMAX formats for large screens. Following these footsteps, VR and television have been increasingly intersecting in myriad ways. For instance, NextVR, a live-broadcasting VR entity, and Fox Sports have signed a five-year deal for broadcasting sporting events. Besides, they have received millions in investments from Time Warner and Comcast. Major networks are also rushing to rent Immersive Media's 360-degree cameras. Further, Disney has contributed $60 million to Jaunt, a VR startup.
A Sign of Things to Come
Other parallel developments are also leading to the decline of traditional entertainment mediums. Video streaming moguls, Hulu and Netflix -in association with Oculus Rift-have developed 'virtual screening rooms' which allow viewers to focus solely on the viewing screen while blocking out other sensory distractions. Emblematic Group, a VR content development company, partnered with Oculus to create simulations that can transport users to the heart of breaking news and events.
In its formative stages, VR is still linked symbiotically to flat-format media-but is well on its way to transforming into a full-fledged, independent entertainment platform. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, has vociferously opined that open, high-quality virtual reality would soon replace conventional displays and televisions. However, most VR library content is still limited in length, usually between one to ten minutes-several hurdles need to be overcome before transitioning to long-form content. Studios too need to produce shows that could benefit from 360-degree camera work and live experiences. The final call, naturally, lies with the consumer-and unless these devices mature, and become inexpensive and lightweight, permeating the market on a significant scale might remain a challenge.
(The writer is Senior Corporate Vice President & Head - Commercial & Consumer Services, HCL Technologies)