There’s More to Virtual Reality Content Than Just Gaming

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.

Oculus-Rift-5

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.”

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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.

scoble_360

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.

mom 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.

3. Movies

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.”

penrose

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.

Conclusion

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.

3 thoughts on “There’s More to Virtual Reality Content Than Just Gaming

  1. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Conclusion
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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