Since the late 1960s when inventor Douglas Engelbart created the first virtual reality headset, consumers have been itching at the opportunity to place themselves in an immersive world. Unfortunately, the technology has always been too bulky, too expensive, and too lacking to do so — until now.
Within in the past year, companies like Facebook, HTC, and Microsoft have announced plans of releasing affordable standalone VR headsets for around $200, meaning that consumers will soon be able to experience the word of VR — beyond attaching a phone to a pair of goggles — without having to use a whole month’s pay to buy it. With virtual reality becoming more accessible for the average consumer, and augmented reality — VR’s more popular sister — deepening its roots in the entertainment industry, creators have been faced with the challenge of developing content that utilizes the features of immersive formats while remaining entertaining for the user.
Chris Young, SVP of Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab, a division of Nickelodeon designed to identify and experiment with new and emerging technologies, has been at the forefront of developing new entertainment experiences across VR, AR, and AI for the entertainment company.
In this week’s ‘5 Questions,’ Young discusses the role of immersive tech in Nickelodeon’s future, the importance of positional tracking in immersive storytelling, and the most important thing to remember when creating immersive content for children.
VideoInk: What role will immersive technology play in Nickelodeon’s future, and what steps is the company taking to get there?
Chris Young: It’s hard to know exactly where entertainment is headed as it relates to immersive technology. That’s the reason why the lab exists – to explore what those possibilities might be. When you think about virtual reality and what it’s really great at doing, it provides the user with the opportunity to be fully present or immersed inside of these worlds. At Nickelodeon, we are world builders and we author these environments and universes with our characters, and it lends itself to virtual reality. It’s a very powerful idea for a creator to be able to put their audience inside the worlds they create and let them interact with the characters that they love.
Where does Nickelodeon see the most opportunity in: AR, VR, or AI — and why?
Right now, the opportunity is equal across all these technologies because we don’t exactly know which ones are going to emerge as the most readily available. A combination of all these will exist in some form or another, and we believe we can be successful within all these different platforms. We’ve seen the recent launch of ARKit and ARCore and you can imagine how quickly those technologies will scale with all the hardware already in place.
Virtual reality, in a very short time, has come a very long way, so that is another great opportunity to see that this hardware will become more widely accessible. AI has a tremendous foothold in the future of the ability to interact with characters and have a different kind of entertainment experience that we couldn’t have before we could artificially drive character interaction.
Due to its high cost, VR is known to be one of the more inaccessible formats on the market. How does Nickelodeon’s Entertainment Lab plan to overcome this obstacle?
It’s not our job to overcome the barriers that exist right now in VR – it’s about trying to understand the best way to author for these platforms, and also understand what kind of entertainment experiences really work for them. I won’t argue that the high-end VR systems are mostly out of reach for our audience, as that is the exact reality, but increasingly those costs are coming down and that hardware is becoming more readily accessible. When the time is right, and within the context of kids being able to choose those experiences and that hardware along with their parents, we’ll let them make the decision for themselves.
The industry is starting to see the emergence of standalone VR headsets, but most come without positional tracking, meaning the user can’t interact with the content. How important is this (if at all) when it comes to telling stories through the format?
It’s really important – anything that makes the user feel more immersed and fully present inside of the virtual space is the key to creating something that is really compelling and entertaining. I am a big believer in six degrees of freedom and the ability to touch and manipulate objects in the space. All of these things will help. The friction that exists around cameras that you have to set up in the room to track your location need to go away to make a more seamless experience. That said, even in its current form, it’s very transformative and that’s what makes it exciting.
What is the most important thing to remember when creating immersive content for children?
Like anything we do, it has to be entertaining and fun, and it has to align with our mission to make the world a more playful place. We really think about how we can provide that value and create that kind of experience with this technology.