Virtual reality – is it really the future of motion content?

Excel Centre, London

Today was the opening day of BVE (Broadcast Video expo) 2016 at Excel, London. I try to get along every year, mainly to get a glimpse of the latest gadgets and check in on a few talks, but this year I came with my eyes open to one thing in particular – Virtual Reality.

The Zukersung effect

Recently, Samsung made a huge move into the VR market, with their S7 phone, headset and 360° camera. I’ve kind of been on the fence about VR. Part of me feels it’s a bit of a fad, a little bit like the resurgence of 3D.

But then Mark Zuckerberg started pushing the technology in a big way, and teaming up with Samsung. So, it’s digital, it’s on the internet, and it’s being pushed by the world’s largest social media company, Facebook. I can no longer ignore that something is going on here.

And looking back, it’s not surprising that 3D failed to make waves. 3D was very much about the traditional telly viewing experience, which we are very accustomed to watching in a passive and linear way. VR could bring something completely new to an audience that’s already shown its enthusiasm for immersive and active experiences on the internet.

Here at BVE, I’m a little surprised at the lack of VR or 360° products/information, but maybe it’s one for the pro-audience next year? Having said that, there was one talk on the opening day that fit the bill.

Virtual reality – what opportunities does it offer for broadcasters and brands?

This was a multi-speaker session with a spread of expertise from traditional book publishing (Damian Horner from Hachette UK), gaming (Anil Glendinning of Opposable Group) and broadcast TV (Martin Trickey from Warner Bros, ex-BBC). We start with the top-line thoughts on this emerging and fast-moving technology.

The fad vs future argument

The first question posed by Damian Horner is one I shared earlier, is this just a fad? Possibly, but the consensus view was that VR is a new technology which is disruptive to the traditional experience of motion content. We must embrace if we are to evolve with it.

The goal is to make virtual reality a new business model, as opposed to just a marketing stunt. If you can apply a loose strategy to begin with, then you can start leading the way with experimentation and great experiences, creating a halo effect for your brand.

The specs factor

As with 3D TV, it’s fair to ask ‘would I put on a headset?’. As a thirty-something adult, I’m probably not very likely to do this, especially in public. But the panel felt that the real opportunity lies with children and young people. A generation that’s more than happy to indulge in a bit of phubbing mid-conversation could be more than happy to pop on a headset in the coffee shop.

Google cardboard

Keeping with the theme of children, a real win could be within education. Imagine we took a traditional text-book scenario, such as the battle of Britain, and built a virtual reality world to be explored. What possibilities for creativity and imagination could such an immersive classroom experience create for the next generation?

VR as a storytelling tool

The big question for me as a content creator was around story and craft. Virtual Reality, 3D, 4K – technology is great, but unless you have some engaging well-crafted content, your attempts to utilise these new toys will fail. So how do we build on what we know as storytellers and harness this technology in the best way?

Anil Glendinning says we have to adapt and advance our film-making techniques. It’s not enough to take a linear narrative or scene and slap a 360° camera on it. The techniques of scripting, voiceovers etc need to be adapted. We must view the virtual world like a theatre, dressing your stage but allowing the user to control the window. We need to build the story into second and third levels as the user becomes the director.

Experiences you can dive in and out of

Duration of VR content is a key issue too. Currently, we’re looking to the big tech companies as our 360° motion content distributors (Facebook/Google/YouTube) where we know the most successful content is short and snackable. This seems to be the case with VR, too. Keep virtual reality experiences fast and short, under 2 minutes, allowing users to dive in and out of experiences.

And ‘experience’ is the key work here, since this is what we are creating when it comes to VR. It’s all about the user, not the technology. We need to evoke an emotional response, engage the user on a visceral level, make them feel something. If we can do this, then the tech doesn’t matter.

The medium ain’t the message

So, is all the fuss worth it? In my view, success with VR and 360° video ultimately comes down to the creativity and craft of the content. The challenge is to create a compelling experience, capture the imagination of your users and make them feel something. Technology itself shouldn’t be the reason for experimenting, but the creative opportunity that technology allows to do something that moves people.

The leave behind from the panel was to make sure you have a loose strategy, dive-in and experiment. After all, if Zuckerberg thinks VR is the future, can we afford not to come along for the ride? Let’s see!

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