Virtual reality has been around for decades, but recent developments suggest it’s about to go mainstream. Or is it?
Yesterday’s reports that Amazon Studios was taking meetings with top VR content creators should come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with the technology’s evolving appeal. Last week at NAB, it had been openly discussed among VR insiders that the worst-kept secret in the industry was that both Amazon and Netflix were building their VR teams. The fact that Amazon is actively taking meetings now only leads to speculation of when and how Amazon will decide to jump into the new frontier of VR.
From the content creation side of things, the early days of VR are still the wild west, with creatives having to to serve as their own technical hacks to rig their own cameras and solve post-production work flow problems; while they simultaneously tackle the larger, existential question everybody Hollywood is discussing: What exactly is a VR experience?
An even larger challenge, and one that is openly bemoaned by the biggest technical experts stepping into the space, is the complete lack of uniformity across the various VR platforms: Designers have to customize their VR experiences for platforms like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift — both of which have motion sensors that allow for room scale, or the ability for the viewer to move inside the VR experience. But there are countless other VR experiences in play as well, such as the Samsung VR Gear, the soon-to-be released Playstation VR, and the numerous mobile apps that can be experienced with a $30 Google Cardboard.
At NAB’s Virtual Reality Summit panel on VR Sound, it was fascinating to hear top sound designers with decades of technical experience from companies like Dolby and Sound Source openly discuss their frustration with the technical challenges in creating and delivering audio for the various platforms.
Early speculation is that both Amazon and Netflix might want to wait for the VR space to mature before creating channels and apps (Netflix has already built a movie watching channel in the Oculus Rift) and start releasing large quantities of original VR content. Currently, VR creators are also distributing their work, so it’s easy to imagine how Amazon and Netflix are best positioned to consolidate and monetize content delivery once it becomes clear where and how consumers will watch VR.
Netflix has already created a model doing exactly that, by building a streaming business from its large DVD business. By introducing streaming early to their DVD rental customer base, and making it available for free, Netflix was able to organically build streaming habits that they were eventually able to spin off into a subscription VOD business. Speculation is that Amazon and Netflix could do the same with VR by making it available for free to their subscribers and create a VR channel or app that becomes the go-to place for VR experiences, by partnering with top VR creators much the same way they did with top Hollywood studios and talent.
While the VR community is able to reasonably speculate how Amazon and Netflix could eventually move into their new space, the more open-ended and potentially game changing question is what will Apple do? There’s no question that, somewhere in a Cupertino basement, Apple is experimenting with VR solutions, but the general feeling is that the current need to use separate motion sensors to accomplish room scale or the big clunky headsets is not in line with the Apple ethos of intuitive, elegant technology. As always, though, the company remains tight-lipped about its plans.
Still, as the technology continues to rapidly advance, and the need for separate motion sensors disappears, the best guess is that Apple will be ready to step in with its own VR player, possibly built into a future version of an iPhone, that could potentially consolidate the VR market. At least, that’s the main theory from veterans of the VR industry (yes, they exist — it’s been around since the nineties). Market analysts are predicting that VR, and associated technologies like augmented reality, will quickly grow into a multi-billion dollar industry that will transcend gaming and entertainment, so it should surprise no one that Netflix, Amazon, and Apple will follow Facebook, Google and other tech giants into this unknown future.