A scene from Ghost in the Shell, which has been used as the inspiration for a VR experience. Photograph: Alamy
Virtual reality (VR) technology secured its place in popular culture through films such as The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix, as well as books such as Ready Player One, which Steven Spielberg is adapting for a movie. They presented visions of technology whereby strapping on a VR headset (or, as in The Matrix, being imprisoned in pods and hooked up to a computer network by human-farming machines) enabled people to explore virtual, computer-generated worlds.
In 2017, these cultural touchstones are freshly in mind for the television industry, as it tries to understand whether real-life headsets can be used to deliver new forms of drama, documentary and storytelling.
Multiple attempts in past decades to make VR a real-world success floundered. However, the release of a new generation of VR headsets in 2016 from Sony, Google, Samsung, HTC and Facebook-owned Oculus VR has brought the technology back to prominence.
The promise: connect a headset to a games console (Sony’s PlayStation VR), a computer (Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive) or your smartphone (Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Daydream View) and you can watch video, play games and explore virtual worlds, turning your head around for 360-degree vision, and interacting via a controller.
VR experiences in their current form range from fending off zombies in survival-horror game Resident Evil 7 and exploring the ocean depths with David Attenborough to watching Paul McCartney play live from an onstage vantage point, experiencing solitary confinement or exploring a Syrian refugee camp.
TV firms want to know more. At this month’s MIPTV industry conference in Cannes, VR was a major theme for producers, broadcasters and tech companies alike.
“We will all have superpowers. Because in virtual reality you can be anyone, you can go anywhere, and you can create anything,” said HTC’s Rikard Steiber in a keynote speech. “We’re just at the beginning of what the technology can do. It’s a new computing platform: it’s going to be the next mass medium.”
That message is not falling on deaf ears. For all the talk of a Netflix and HBO-fuelled “golden age of television” at conferences like this, there is also an underlying jitteriness in the TV industry about the migration of younger viewers away from traditional channels towards videos on YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram.
Partnerships with those companies is one trend, but VR has emerged – or at least is being pitched by the headset-makers – as another way for television firms to stay relevant.
The challenge is that in 2017 VR is far less popular than those apps. YouTube has more than one billion monthly viewers, Instagram has more than 600 million and Snapchat has 158 million daily users. By contrast, even VR evangelists admit that only around 20 million headsets have been sold, including fewer than 2 million of the “tethered” devices, which require a connection to a powerful computer. Still, with research company Greenlight Insights predicting that by 2021 headset owners will spend $9bn a year on VR content, TV producers and broadcasters are keen to start experimenting with the technology now.
This is as much a creative challenge as a business one. Many VR experiences to date have either been games or non-interactive video – the equivalent to early television shows adopting the conventions of radio, and early cinema doing the same with theatre. But like TV and films VR has the potential to evolve its own language and formats.
“Good VR has a proposition that is unique to VR. It sounds really obvious, but it’s key. It has to be better in VR, or only in VR,” said Greg Ivanov from Google’s Daydream team, in a panel session at MIPTV. “A lot of media companies have a tendency to take what they have and put it in VR. That might be a good bridge, but it’s not the ultimate destination for VR.”
Bertie Millis, managing director of British firm Virtual Umbrella, which demonstrated a range VR apps at the MIPTV conference, says At MIPTV, several speakers suggested that TV firms would do better to explore the software “engines” used to build games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, rather than expensive 360-degree video cameras. “My personal mission this year is really to try to work with interactivity as much as possible,” said Richard Nockles, creative director of broadcaster Sky’s VR studio. “The game engine is 100% the future.”
But it was another medium that came up regularly during the conference: theatre. “It’s more like theatre than movies. But it’s a very unusual theatre: for one person,” said Simon Benson, from the Sony team that developed the PlayStation VR headset. “As with any theatre performance, if there are lots of actors on stage performing, you can’t guarantee all your audience are looking somewhere at a particular time. The whole scene has to be tangible at all times: you lose control of focusing in on a particular element.”
Benson also said making the viewer/player the main character in a VR narrative can also create headaches. “How can you guarantee they’re going to drive the narrative in the way you want?” he said, suggesting that what may work better is to have them be a secondary character, led through the story by a virtual lead. In this situation, the viewer is “more Robin than Batman … more Chewbacca than Han Solo”.
“Some of our best directors are transitioning from theatre, and they understand groups of people, dynamics and choreography,” said Solomon Rogers, whose studio Rewind has just released a VR experience based on the film Ghost in the Shell.
“It’s theatre. It’s an experiential script. It’s part Charles Dickens, part Arthur Miller and part your television or film writer,” added Brian Seth Hurst from VR production company StoryTech Immersive.
Very few people are getting rich from creating virtual-reality stories in 2017, but this may serve to encourage experimentation and risk-taking, as well as partnerships between TV companies and VR tech startups to understand what VR can offer that’s unique. Their hopes are that this in turn will persuade more people to buy a headset. One danger for the industry is that if people’s first experience of VR is bad – whether it gives them motion-sickness or just turns them off with clunky storytelling and ill thought-out interactivity – they will not come back for a long time.
TV firms are cautious but intrigued by the possibilities. You can expect to see a number of shows get VR spin-offs in 2017 and 2018, as well as some attempts at VR-only experiences. “VR is still very much jury out,” said Kim Shillinglaw, from TV producer Endemol Shine.
“That idea of a piece or kit or a new approach to technology really driving storytelling and opening up a new wave of television is really interesting. It’s incumbent on all of us to stay really curious about all these applications,” she added.
In the meantime, the VR tech firms will continue trying to stoke that curiosity, with HTC’s Steiber drawing on virtual reality’s pop-culture heritage with a reference to Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix, as he exhorted the TV industry to get involved. “Hopefully, like Neo, you’ll take the pill and run down the rabbit hole with us.”
Top VR experiences
Home – A VR Spacewalk A collaboration between the BBC and VR agency Rewind, this takes its viewers on a 15-minute spacewalk.
Ghost in the Shell Tying in with the new Scarlett Johansson film, this takes some of its scenes into VR.
Farpoint Developed for Sony’s PlayStation VR, this is a narrative-heavy space adventure.
Volcanoes – An Immersive Experience German broadcaster ZDF created this 360-degree film, going close-up with an erupting volcano.
Adventure Time: I See Ooo Cartoon Network released this TV spin-off for children, but included ‘time-out breaks’ to reassure parents.