Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Will VR live up to the promise?

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast November 19, 2015

The potential is great but it could be another 3D, says Kate Bulkley

Can you imagine watching Len Goodman and the Strictly Come Dancing couples in all their sequined glory in 360 degrees of virtual reality? That means seeing the twirling pairs all around you, not just on the screen in front of you.

The brave new world of VR headsets may seem like future-gazing, but it’s closer than you think – the BBC and studios like NBC Universal are already testing the tech on shows such as Strictly.

Last weekend, The New York Times delivered 1.2 million Google Cardboards to its home-delivery subscribers so they could watch The Displaced, a film about refugee children growing up in Ukraine, South Sudan and Lebanon. The recent Democratic presidential debates were also shot and broadcast in VR on CNN.

Those who recall the spectacularly underwhelming experience of 3D know the potential pitfalls ahead, starting with usability, but bundles of cash are being spent on VR. Tech firms in the space, including Jaunt and NextVR, are also growing in prominence.

It’s fast becoming clear that VR could be either the latest disappointment in TV or the next big thing.

Alex Mahon, recently departed chief executive of Shine Group, joined The Foundry last week and said the 3D visual effects company is exploring VR, but has concerns about how to translate the tech into a good viewing experience.

Channel 4 boss David Abraham believes the big questions for any broadcaster are: will VR become mass-market enough to be interesting (unlike 3D) and how might VR help storytelling?

Perhaps the most interesting push into VR is by the digital giants, led by Facebook, which will launch its Oculus Rift headset commercially early next year after acquiring the company for $2bn (£1.3bn).

At the Dublin Web Summit earlier this month, I got to try Oculus Touch, which is an Oculus Rift headset with the addition of hand controllers so you can reach out and pick up virtual objects and interact with others. I have to say it was a ‘wow’ experience and I didn’t feel nauseous once.

The really cool bit was the ‘social’ experience of being able to interact with someone else (he was in the room next door, but could have been across the planet connected by broadband). We built a block castle together and interacted with other sci-fi toys.

Imagine if a grandmother in London could have playtime with her grandchild in Australia, perhaps using the ‘assets’ of a TV show? It’s not TV as we know it, but clever people are already thinking about how to evolve audiences into something that looks more like a community.

But advertising is where most of us are likely to see VR first, with Facebook announcing this week that it will add 360-degree video ads.

Watching these videos and ads doesn’t even require a VR headset – they simulate what it’s like to look anywhere in a scene. I imagine that brands and agencies will be eager to exploit this new, immersive technology and Facebook will make it economically attractive, which will help to ‘seed’ the VR video market and get users ready for the real thing.

That sounds like a strategy that Len Goodman would give a pretty high score for – a virtual seven out of 10, perhaps?

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