When James Cameron’s Avatar was released, the world cheered as it heralded a new era of 3D cinema – but it wasn’t to be.
Although the technology seemed to be potentially ground-breaking, it didn’t take off as anticipated; the need to wear 3D glasses was a user-experience barrier, and arguably led to users struggling to suspend their disbelief, which is key to enjoying any immersive experience.
We’re currently at a similar inflection point with virtual reality (VR).
There has been a lot of talk about VR for the last few years, but it is yet to be fully adopted by the mainstream. Indeed, most of the population doesn’t yet own a VR headset and significant numbers have never even tried it out. A lot of this comes down the cost and availability of hardware. Initially prohibitively priced for the masses, hardware has become increasingly affordable – Facebook even recently dropped the price of Oculus Rift.
However, the vast majority of people are currently using their smartphones, rather than VR headsets, to experience immersive content. Recent data from AOL shows that more than half of us (52 percent) now watch 360° video on mobile at least once a week. Over half a billion people have viewed a 360° video on Facebook.
If VR is the evolution of the function – and experience – of content, then 360° video is the stepping stone between the fixed frame and the fully immersive. We need to take a step back and stop analysing headset and hardware sales as an indication of how the industry will fare. Rather, it requires a more holistic view on how people are engaging with content and the apparent rise in desire for immersive experiences.
Fundamentally, humans are always looking to be immersed. From the Lumière brothers making 19th century cinema audiences physically jump out of the way of a speeding train, to the growing popularity of experiential events like Secret Cinema. People want to be part of the story and to be engaged in the simplest way possible.
Similarly, the prevalence of episodic serialised video content by providers like Netflix has taken over the mainstream. It answers a base need - giving audiences what they want and, most importantly, when they want it. It’s a win-win, as serialised content also makes for sticky, loyal customers.
Pokemon Go showed that augmented reality (AR) experiences are natural and instinctive for the public.
Affordable, attractive and untethered VR headsets are being developed by all the major players, and the price is dropping, but for now mobile is the dominant platform.
Due to its immediate availability both online and on social media, 360° video is not only highly accessible, but also innately sharable.
Brands and publishers need to focus on 360° video first, making content that is begging to go viral – for the mobile many, and not the VR headset few.