BySarah Ullman, writer at Creators.co

I have a vision. Not of sugarplums, but instead of Beyonce, dancing in my head and in front of my eyes in a virtual reality world, while I sit on my couch in the comfort of my home, shoving popcorn in my face.

I would very much like to attend a live Beyonce concert in virtual reality. I’ll buy a “ticket,” a headset, and even a Samsung Galaxy phone whose sole use will be to power my Gear VR.

Virtual reality can’t replace the live experience, but instead provide content otherwise inaccessible. VR seats would be better than anything I can afford IRL.

Thus began my research as a motivated potential live VR consumer. I’ve had quite a few VR experiences before: Oculus, Samsung Gear VR and Nonny de la Pena’s “immersive journalism” with a custom built headset. However, live VR is a new frontier.

It turns out my vision is not a dream but a…virtual reality.

Virtual reality can’t replace the live experience, but instead provide content otherwise inaccessible. VR seats would be better than anything I can afford IRL.

In February, NextVR announced a partnership with Fox Sports to live broadcast sports events (including March Madness) in virtual reality via their app in the Oculus Store on the Samsung Gear VR. It’s an impressive technical feat executed using NextVR proprietary software and technology. NextVR plans to churn out a live VR event each and every day by the end of this summer. Good news for sports fans and, really, anyone interested in virtual reality. NextVR’s live sports events have been called “…some of the most engaging virtual reality experiences available on the Samsung Gear VR platform.”

NextVR live virtual reality broadcast from the Daytona Beach 500 Nascar race
NextVR live virtual reality broadcast from the Daytona Beach 500 Nascar race

Sports events are a natural fit for live VR; the game contains an organic story arc, the event is timely appointment programming, and the fans are rabid. When questioned about the percentage of sports fans who also own Gear VR headsets, NextVR co-founder David Cole told me, “[Sports and music] have such massive fanbases, that if you have that content early, you’re very likely to intersect a large part of the early adopters. It’s just a numbers game. We go to these massive fan bases and bring them to VR…it’s the healthiest thing to do to drive traffic to VR. If you fish where the fish are in terms of content appeal, then you wind up with a catalogue that’s really beneficial to bringing new customers to virtual reality.”

Sports events are a natural fit for live VR; the game contains an organic story arc, the event is timely appointment programming, and the fans are rabid.

Concerts are imminent in NextVR’s content queue, so I decided to get more familiar with their platform and technology.

The Medium Experience

As I strapped on the GearVR and bid farewell to my coworkers, I hoped to be impressed, if not immersed. No live events were available at that moment, so I watched the March Madness final as a video on demand. Physically, I was facing the wrong direction to watch the content, so I had to switch to another chair. The courtside seats were certainly some of the best in the house, and the basketball game from that perspective had an almost balletic quality.

Live virtual reality from NCAA March Madness
Live virtual reality from NCAA March Madness

The viewing screen is about 180 degrees, rather than the expected spherical 360 video. The broadcast was editorially controlled, and switched from courtside to under-the-hoop shots and back again, helpfully guiding my attention. I caught myself staring at the basketball hoop to try and see the camera source of my other POV. These unique perspectives in sports broadcast are an important part of NextVR’s current innovation work. “Our mobile laboratory at NAB helps us to rapidly evolve in terms of camera placement and production in situ… So the iteration cycles for improving product will continue to get shorter and shorter,” Cole says, “Right now, we have an internal all-hands run of show that involves the entire company from business development to engineering and production and also sometimes the partner… That’s a very engineering centric habit that’s part of the culture at NextVR.”

Unfortunately, despite being connected to high-speed wifi, the screen kept freezing while the audio played on. Fifteen minutes in, a notification popped up: my Samsung Galaxy was too hot to continue with optimal performance. I called it quits.

The broadcast was editorially controlled, and switched from courtside to under-the-hoop shots and back again, helpfully guiding my attention. I caught myself staring at the basketball hoop to try and see the camera source of my other POV.

As a fair-weather sports fan on a good day, my experience with the content was notably passionless, but I did appreciate NextVR’s ability to capture the depth of the environment around the camera, the excellent technical direction, and the spectacle of sports in virtual reality. Also, I had to remind myself: this instance is one data point, one person’s experience.

Private, in Public

Emerging from the headset, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something private in public.

The virtual reality experience is all at once more immersive and isolating, but also more public: it’s very clear exactly what you’re doing. I can’t imagine strapping on a headset anywhere other than my home or media-obsessed office. Does this form factor limit the capacity of the medium to grow? Cole insists that, “[VR consumption] will very loyally follow the lines of mobile media consumption right now.”

But mobile video consumption is ubiquitous because it’s both more anonymous due to the multi-functionality of our phones, and less physically limiting because it does not occlude your vision. As for the physical isolation, perhaps it’s simply “an artifact of what the experience is like today” as Cole puts it. How will an inherently physically restrictive technology evolve to be less so? Do we want a social VR experience, sitting next to our friends’ avatars in the stands?

NextVR’s live events can be viewed via their app in the Oculus Store on the Samsung Gear VR
NextVR’s live events can be viewed via their app in the Oculus Store on the Samsung Gear VR

One camp says that VR shouldn’t worry about mobile, and instead assume the hallowed spot in our living rooms next to the game console and the TV. Others assert that smaller, lighter headsets like the LG 360 VR will allow us to watch virtual reality anywhere we use our phones. You could be on the train watching VR in the same way we might bury our head in a book.

“There are a couple things about the exclusivity or the fully occluded nature - the ‘alien nature’ - of a VR headset that I think are probably just the social acceptability,” Cole suggests. “I have seen now a Samsung Gear VR on an airplane (one that I didn’t happen to be involved with). So the coming of age is beginning to happen. The novelty of the platform does make it a little awkward, but the same was very likely true of putting a walkman on, or earbuds. When you started to see that trend it looked clunky and somewhat rude at first…so I think the social acceptability is just a matter of time.”

Every medium has its own history. Will virtual reality headsets go the way of the Walkman or the way of Google Glass?

The novelty of the platform does make it a little awkward, but the same was very likely true of putting a walkman on, or earbuds. When you started to see that trend it looked clunky and somewhat rude at first…so I think the social acceptability is just a matter of time.

The Marketing and the Market

As Oculus has now shipped its first consumer headsets, tech and media journalists rejoiced: virtual reality is here! But here for whom? How many people own headsets overall? We don’t know. How many Samsung Gear VRs have sold? They aren’t saying. How many consumers can afford the $1500 Oculus bundle that includes a desktop PC? Gamers who already have a robust desktop PC or very wealthy early adopters.

As a fairly savvy and motivated consumer, I find the actual virtual reality experiences I’ve had to be out of step with the obsequious press coverage heralding the arrival of the future. These VR experiences have been marvelous - because they’re a marvel, and not because I would choose to watch the current iteration of (live or not) virtual reality over attending a live concert.

Cole says VR just hasn’t fully arrived, yet: “As the footprint gets bigger, innovation gets harder. When the ship gets bigger, it’s harder to steer,” he says. “So we’re working really hard to make sure production best practices and the product shaping, or the best fit of the product for the audience so that all those lessons learned, all that experience and data are getting very rapidly baked into the product. Because there will come a time when we say this is it, this is 1.0 basketball game from NextVR. We’re not there yet.”

This is not to say that virtual reality isn’t promising or won’t find a consumer base. Gaming is clearly an easy port from consoles to VR. Perhaps it works so well because multiplayer culture doesn’t pretend to replicate our world, but instead celebrates wholly virtual worlds.

In 2014 NextVR produced a live virtual reality broadcast of a Coldplay concert for Samsung Gear VR
In 2014 NextVR produced a live virtual reality broadcast of a Coldplay concert for Samsung Gear VR

In the meantime, companies like NextVR will continue to sally forth, iterating and improving on live VR content, the technology, and the experience. Cole says the market is ripe and ready for what they’re developing. “Substantial are the efforts to satisfy the customer’s desire to consume content colloquially ‘over the top’ as opposed to traditional broadcast. So that indicates that there’s a large ready audience for VR, which is a traditionally over the top product,” he says. “So it’s almost a perfect storm of a new medium which is intrinsically over the top, coming of age and coming to market at exactly the same time that the rights holders are realizing that cable or over the air isn’t the only important conduit to reach the customer…. There’s already a migration of audience to more flexible digital platforms for receiving content. You couldn’t have more perfect timing for a sea change towards the internet. We intersect the trend beautifully. VR intersects the trend beautifully. People are moving away from the linear scheduled experience.”

And I’ll keep watching, though my expectations of virtual reality and live VR in particular, set by a triumphant media and technology press, have been managed.

When the time comes, to buy my front row virtual reality ticket to a Beyonce concert, I hope the technology and content will have evolved to make live VR feel equally as special, if different, from live events. The best part of a Beyonce concert is dancing along to the songs. With almost no spatial awareness inside of a mobile VR device (unlike Oculus, which has positional tracking) and a literally heavy head, it’s awkward to strut when you feel so isolated from the world. A virtual reality concert could bring poignant new meaning to “dancing on my own.”

Sully (Sarah Ullman) is the creator of The Jungle, a weekly newsletter about the digital video ecosystem with an audience of over 1500 studio and MCN heads, agents, executives, and creators. She earns her daily bread as a director, producer, and creative consultant for companies and organizations like Nestle, Purina, Nickelodeon, Reach Agency, SoulPancake, JASH, The Media Impact Project, and The Clinton Foundation.

Trending

Latest from our Creators