Virtual Reality: Media’s Final Frontier

by Roy Kachur

As we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web, another game-changing revolution in computer-based technology continues to take shape. Virtual Reality (VR) is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, on a scale never imagined by its original creators. Since Facebook’s acquisition of a startup called Oculus in the spring of 2014, we have seen a renaissance of new applications that are making VR easily accessible for the average consumer.

What will be the impact of virtual reality on the media industry, and on society at large? Will the immersiveness offered by this new technology be enticing enough to replace traditional film and television? Will VR enable us to teleport around the world, visiting exotic locales and experiencing live newsworthy events as they happen? Will people remain secluded in their homes, “jacked in” to VR environments all day long, only to exit the “matrix” for dietary nourishment and other bodily functions? To all these questions, the best answer for today is “maybe.”

Background

Although the concept of VR was initially born in science fiction of the early 20th century, its emergence as a real-world technology began in the 1980’s.  During this time, most VR investments were spent on research, but some practical applications were developed for medicine, flight simulation, automotive design, and military training. Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, VR continued to exist in select areas of industry, where large organizations could afford the expensive devices for various research initiatives. But it was not until March 2014 that a new interest in VR was ignited, when social media company Facebook acquired a startup called Oculus VR, for $2 billion.

Facebook’s purchase of Oculus effectively ushered in the modern era of VR. Early versions of the Oculus Rift (as their flagship device was called) were impressive, but had some technical issues. While engineers continued to refine and improve the technology in 2015, Oculus partnered with Samsung to release a mobile VR headset, called the Gear VR. This was a lower-end HMD that connected to a Samsung Galaxy phone, and enabled a VR experience without a connected computer. In contrast, the Oculus Rift would need to be “tethered” via cables to a high-end Windows PC.

Meanwhile, two other key players in the VR space were working on products that would compete directly with the Oculus Rift. Game developer Valve and consumer hardware company HTC were working on the Vive, which was a tethered HMD (similar to the Rift). However, the Vive’s key differentiator was its ability to provide “room-scale” VR. This provided a significant advantage over the Oculus Rift. It allowed users (assuming they had enough empty space in their home), to walk around in a virtual environment, in a 15-by-15-foot area. 

The third major VR player was Sony, who developed their own VR headset called PlayStation VR. Although the Sony product did not offer room-scale capability, it did have an advantage over both the Rift and the Vive because it worked for an established customer base who already owned a PS4 game console. The Rift and Vive, on the other hand, both require users to have a connected high-end PC, along with the VR headsets.

There was one more company which came out with a VR headset during this time period. Google released a simple, inexpensive device called Cardboard, which was exactly that: a basic VR HMD made out of cardboard, with plastic lenses and a rubber band. It worked with most current smartphones, to enable a basic VR experience comparable to that of the Samsung Gear VR. The advantage of Cardboard was that it could be produced cheaply, distributed for a low price (or even free), and could very quickly promote awareness of VR to a large number of users. Finally in 2016, Google released a brand new (non-cardboard) headset called Daydream, which works with newer smartphones, including Google’s own Pixel and Pixel XL.

Applications

Which applications of VR offer the highest potential for the media industry? Journalism and news broadcasting come to mind as obvious opportunities for the immersiveness of VR. News reporting and documentary production can take advantage of VR by using simulated environments to tell a story, and allowing viewers to navigate freely within those environments. Alternatively, producers can create compelling documentaries using 360-degree cameras, to capture immersive videos from real life. Viewers can experience real-life events from a true first-person perspective, “as if you are there.”

In the Entertainment field, VR offers many opportunities for storytelling in a new and exciting medium. While we currently watch film and TV productions within the confines of a rectangular frame, with VR there is no frame!  The viewer is completely immersed in the middle of a spherical, 2D or 3D environment, either simulated via computer graphics, or captured from real life via 360-degree video. Either approach offers much more than we are able to experience today, in traditional films and TV shows.

Live sports broadcasts and musical performances can leverage the immersiveness of VR to enable exciting experiences for viewers. Companies like Jaunt and NextVR are already producing VR broadcasts for basketball, boxing, golf and auto racing, as well as concerts and other entertainment events. They are beginning to experiment with monetization strategies, to help establish a value chain for the production and distribution of VR content.

Ultimate Potential

Looking forward over the next 5-10 years, there is a strong possibility that VR will become widely available and accessible to consumers. What can we expect in the fields of television, journalism, and film? Virtual reality gives viewers the opportunity to accomplish what many people have always dreamed of: to “go inside” their televisions. A child who experiences TV for the first time probably wonders: “How did those people get inside that little box?” With VR, viewers can be “transported” inside the picture, with a 360-degree view of the action, as if they are actually present in the middle of the scene. This is a very powerful concept, and (if successfully implemented by VR producers) will provide amazing experiences for viewers.

Many news outlets have already become aware of the power of VR to immerse viewers in their stories, and have begun to realize the impact that immersive storytelling can have on their audience. Journalists are starting to make effective use of 360-degree video, by bringing specialized cameras on location with them around the world. Virtual reality can transport us directly on the scene, on location wherever the 360-degree cameras can go.

Will the exciting experiences offered by virtual reality be enough to outweigh the technical challenges? Will viewers overcome their reluctance to wear yet another “clunky” device in order to experience what VR has to offer? Or will VR go the way of 3D TV, and enjoy a brief moment as a fad, but never really gain a foothold with the public? These questions remain unanswered at this early stage. VR has failed in the past, barely clinging to life as a niche product in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

This time, the situation appears to be different. With significant improvements in technology and a reduction in prices, there is a strong feeling that VR will be a “game-changer.”

The media industry will watch VR very closely in the months and years ahead. At the very least, there will be a new option for viewing content in a more immersive way. The “old” media paradigms will still exist. Newspapers, television, and movies are not going away any time soon. But VR promises to offer a compelling new viewing experience, which (as they say) “you just have to try.”

Roy Kachur is a graduate student (M.S., Media Management - Class of 2018) in the School of Media Studies, The New School. He works as an IT Architect for a major media company. He is passionate about emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality, and their potential applications for the media industry.