The conversation around the capabilities – and limitations – of virtual reality is slowly advancing with each festival and conference, and the Realscreen Summit was no different, with a dedicated panel on the burgeoning technology rounding out the final sessions of the Washington DC event.
Panelists from the 44 Blue-owned VR outfit Ovrture, New York-based prodco Haymaker Media, Toronto- and LA-based digital studio Secret Location and Discovery Communications convened to acknowledge that while the field was still in its early stages, a body of knowledge is slowly being compiled around the intersection of non-fiction storytelling and VR.
Moderated by Barry Walsh, editor and content director of realscreen, “Virtual Reality: The Big Picture” featured Mike Drachkovitch, founder and CEO of Ovrture; Irad Eyal, co-owner of Haymaker Media; Marty Flanagan, creative director of Secret Location; and Cory Key, VP of interactive for Discovery Agency at Discovery Communications.
Here are our takeaways from the session:
Linear and traditional networks are still taking their time with VR
If VR is to reach a market value of between US$70 billion and $100 billion by 2020, one would expect that networks and broadcasters are clamoring to get in on the action, but several panelists noted that while traditional nets are interested in and curious about augmented reality, it’s tech players such as HTC, Sony and Facebook – those who are backing VR hardware – that are particularly keen on VR content.
“They are really hungry for content and their focus has been so far on video games, sporting events and animation,” said Haymaker Media’s Eyal, who added that there is apprehension among big players because 3D wasn’t the “big success” some thought it was going to be.
Ovrture’s Drachkovitch, meanwhile, predicted it would be a gradual process, particularly as 2016 is the first year where creators have an audience to test technology and programming on. “We were guessing what people wanted to watch,” said the exec, but now with platforms such as Facebook 360, for example, it’s easier to gauge what audiences are responding to.
The exec pointed out that, with networks, creators are still in phase one. “How do we augment our existing IP into VR? And that requires its own creative approach. And then there’s a whole other space, which is original VR content. Those stories are uniquely served by the medium.”
How to tell if you’re making bad VR
Secret Location’s Flanagan pointed out that there is – literally – nowhere to hide in VR, adding that there are myriad ways to jam up the experience by not thinking properly about where you’re telling the story, and about the post-production process that follows capturing the footage.
The ideal is to “get [VR] to the point where people can get lost in it, and feel like it’s an organic experience they’re having with something,” he told delegates.
Haymaker’s Eyal mentioned a well-known hazard that has plagued VR since its earliest stages: queasiness and nausea among users.
“If your viewer throws up afterwards, that’s a bad VR experience,” he said to laughs from the audience. Other common problems? “Moving the camera is very challenging right now with live action capture, and cuts that are too fast,” said Eyal, though he added that all these things will improve as technology advances.
Creators are casting a wide demographic net
Given the cumbersome nature of some of the technology, one assumption about VR is that it is geared towards a younger demographic, but Discovery’s Cory Key said while VR is indeed youth-skewing, the network hopes to catch everyone from the ages of 18 to 55, adding that even his mother watches all of Discovery’s 360-degree videos on Facebook.
Drachkovitch said young people will likely drive sales for headsets once they hit the market en masse. “This will be like their Xbox,” he said, but added that he’s also seeing seniors adapt to it – particularly VR content for disabled veterans. “To think in the framework of traditional demographics will distract from [its potential],” he concluded.
Similarly, Haymaker’s Eyal referenced The New York Times’ VR experiment last fall, when the publication officially launched its own VR division with the distribution of Google Cardboard viewers to one million subscribers. Eyal said he heard about people’s grandparents building the viewer themselves, downloading the app and accessing the VR content.
“Once these headsets are in people’s homes, that’s the entry point,” said the exec. “I think gamers will be the first ones to do it, but I think eventually everyone will check it out.”
Secret Location’s Flanagan agreed that, unlike high-tech televisions that can be displayed in storefronts for buyers, interactive products such as VR devices can only by explained through application. The best way to get people’s heads around it, Flanagan said, is to have them experience well-executed VR that will get them excited about its potential.
Post-production is still a minefield
All panelists agreed without a beat of hesitation that post-production was still the greatest challenge for VR. Discovery’s Key said that not only shooting the content, but physically storing 30 to 40 terabytes of data was incredibly difficult. And the evolving equipment can be inconsistent in performance. “We shot [alpine skier] Bode Miller on top of a mountain and later found out the camera had died,” said Key.
The exec added that after shooting everything in 4K, the material may look fantastic on a desktop, but the moment you compress the content for a mobile device – cutting the bit rate – you lose a lot of the detail and the image falls flat.