YouTuber Tribal Instincts, a.k.a. Jesse, twirls a morning star around his gauntleted hand. A naked gladiator approaches, shoulders the size of tree trunks, with a menacing look on his flattened face. Jesse slices at him, and knocks him to the ground, cutting off his arm in the process. Somehow, the gladiator rises, and comes in swinging, one-armed — so Jesse skillfully removes his remaining appendage. Blood spatters the ground, but the deformed gladiator keeps approaching, only downed when Jesse picks up one of his amputated arms and hits him with it. He’s laughing somewhat hysterically, understandable, as it’s a surreal experience. He’s playing in virtual reality, but his experience is every bit as incredulous for me as I'm watching mixed reality footage of his gameplay on YouTube.
Before we go further, you probably want to know what exactly I mean by mixed reality. In this case, it’s easier to show than tell, so take a look at the following videos for a better sense of what I’m talking about.
This is media made that accurately represents the virtual reality experience to others, making it social for the viewers as well as the player. At its most basic level, mixed reality is when virtual reality gameplay footage is superimposed over video of a VR headset wearing player, making a composite video that accurately displays just what they’re seeing — and making it far more fun for people to watch.
Mixed reality footage also solves the accessibility problem that virtual reality has, where nonplayers feel excluded from gameplay. I believe this issue is far greater than the high cost of the equipment needed to play the games, because it’s understanding the content of the games that makes people want to experience it for themselves, which leads to market penetration for VR.
Think of it like this: When you put a headset on you're transported, but for people around you, it’s pretty boring. Sure, your squeals and stabs are entertaining, but after a couple minutes, it becomes dull. Mixed reality changes this dynamic by letting you see inside the game as it happens, in a way that you can understand.
A number of YouTubers have taken up the mixed reality mantle and have started building a fan base that's closely following their mixed reality video uploads. Around 94,000 results are found by searching “mixedreality” on YouTube, and “Mixed Reality” returns 1.4 million. Many of these are likely unrelated to this style of gaming video, but it does speak to the rising popularity of this emerging genre and the attention that should be paid to its early adopters, a new breed of YouTube influencers who merge the virtual and IRL together
They may be niche channels right now, but the same could once be said of PewDiePie, currently valued at around $50 million and for gamer Mark Fischbach/Markiplier who made $5.5 million in 2016 alone. YouTube influencers are greatly desired by brands, and AdWeek reported that 75% of all marketers are investing in influencer marketing — seen as a great way to build their brand and reach their demographic with targeted content.
Children play virtual racquet ball in the Rocket NX display, at the VRLA (Virtual Reality Los Angeles) expo in Los Angeles, California on April 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
“Gaming is one of the biggest verticals out there,” says Gus Schultz, vice president of talent acquisition at ScaleLab, a YouTube network. “I would see this as a full-time career. A mid level gamer can make anywhere from $2000-$5000 a month, up to $10,000 [for a bigger gamer].” But he says that breaking into this market can be hard, as it’s so saturated. To stand out, he says he’s noticed more 360 videos and more drone footage, but that the virtual reality space is still growing, something he credits to the affordability of the technology, and that it’s hard to make the games immersive. The companies he works with that target gamers are generally on the accessory end, from gaming chairs to snacks, rather than the hardware companies, and he says that Oculus and HTC have not come calling.
For thirty-year-old Jesse, a.k.a. Tribal Instincts, his YouTube popularity came as a surprise.
“I didn't start this with the expectation of being a YouTuber,” he says. “I had a Vive early [they went on sale in April 2017] and I knew people who wanted to see it so I started live streaming.”
His early videos are what you'd expect, shaky footage, with his superimposed head in the corner. But then he came across some mixed reality videos by developers and this all changed. He thought it was the coolest thing ever, and with his background as a developer knew he could rig up a way to do this at home.
“I don't know a better solution for showing virtual reality to people who don't have it,” he says. “Virtual Reality is fantastic, but on YouTube seeing the standard eye view, it's not interesting, it doesn't convert to the viewer what it is that the players experiencing.” He now regularly uploads gameplay, and a quick browse of his channel has him manning submarines, slicing life size hot dogs and aliens and flying a dragon — all performed with entertaining commentary and occasional screams. He’s endearing and engaging to watch, and it’s not hard to imagine legions of gamers creating similar videos.
But that’s likely to take a while, as mixed reality content growth is hampered by the technical requirements needed to effectively capture mixed reality. Some tools to help noobs exist (Jesse created a camera config program, for example) as creators want to encourage people to make mixed reality at home, but it can be a high learning curve.
“The biggest barrier to doing mixed reality is the real-life components,” Jesse says. “You need space, a green screen, a camera and then tech can be a barrier.” Plus this often needs a capture card and a high powered computer to sync it all up, and setup also takes time and patience.
Luckily there are companies looking to help speed up this process, but many are still in the experimental or beta stage. One of the most promising (and one I’m personally excited about) isOwlchemy Labs who have created a way to capture mixed reality without a green screen by using a ZED stereo camera. Their videos make this process look super easy, but they're sadly still in the beta phase and haven't launched it yet.
Then there’s LIV, a San Francisco-based startup offering mixed reality in a box kit, literally. They provide a pop-up green screen cube, a mixed reality PC complete with custom hardware, camera and lighting setup, so you can do one-click live streaming. They opened for pre-sales in March 2017, and have shipped four units so far, with another 50 people on their waitlist. It looks like an amazing way to create hassle-free mixed reality, but at $10,000 for the whole kit, it’s not accessible to the casual gamer.
On the more budget end, there’s Mix Cast VR, who for $9.99 a month through the Steam store promise to help you DIY mixed reality at home (disclaimer: I haven't tried this yet) through a composite/broadcasting program that simplifies the setup process. Another problem is that not all VR games let you shoot in mixed reality — only Unity based Valve games have this capability. On the plus side, some companies are now developing with mixed reality in mind. Serious Sam, a fantastic shooter, includes a mixed reality menu setting inside the game, that takes players step by step through game capture.
Even so, there are a number of mixed reality stars who have managed to address the various technical issues. Here are the top five Mixed Reality YouTubers you should know about:
YouTube channel: Googly Eyes
Subscribers: [as of April 2017] 388,667
Video views: [as of April 2017] 12,743,025
Most popular video [as of April 2017] 1,174,000 views
About: This channel is a spin-off from Matthias, a popular YouTuber, Together with Team Edge gamers in his network, they create engaging, entertaining videos.
YouTube channel: Marcel Pfister
Subscribers: [as of April 2017] 11,131
Video views: [as of April 2017] 2,849,989
Most popular video: [as of April 2017] 995,810 views
About: German YouTuber Marcel posts mixed reality videos where he plays racing games.
YouTube channel: Brometheus
Subscribers: [as of April 2017] 2,798
Video views: [as of April 2017] 409,420
Most popular video: 54,782 views
About: This up and comer has a friendly easy going personality which makes him a joy to watch. His straightforward approach and real life reactions make him a great addition to the list. He describes himself as “Just a goofy guy who likes to lift and play VR games.”
YouTube channel: SweViver
Subscribers: [as of April 2017] 1,837
Video views: [as of April 2017] 322,082
Most popular video: [as of April 2017] 66402 views
About: “Do you enjoy Virtual Reality? Are you planning to become an early adopter of VR? Are you amazed about HTC Vive just like I am?” he writes. His videos are enthusiastic, fun to watch, and his growth is impressive since his channel launched on Oct 24, 2016.
YouTube channel: Node
Subscribers: [as of April 2017] 1,989,800
Video views: [as of April 2017] 376,817,362
Most popular video: [as of April 2017] 5.6 million views
About: Node studios was launched in 2012 as a video game channel, where Collective Digital Studioput a couple of star gamers together. Much of their content is not true mixed reality, but the size of their audience and their love for virtual reality gaming means they deserve a mention here.
Tribal Instincts isn't the biggest channel, but it stands somewhere in the middle with 12,654 subscribers and almost one million views, with his most popular video standing at 61,000 views.
“I definitely don't feel any stardom,” Jesse says, when I mention he’s one of the big names in the Mixed Reality Maker world. “My channel isn't huge, it's a small hobby of mine.” But this hobby is paying off in some unexpected ways. He hasn't run any paid promotions, but he has received products for free in return for an honest review, including access to VR games, and HTC Vive accessories such as slim glasses and charging docks. On the fan side, he’s becoming well known for his videos in the VR community, to sch an extent that someone sent him a free Vive controller (retail price $129) because he’d mentioned that this would be useful for him.
He’s also started paying more attention to how he dresses. “In my first videos I was wearing a plaid shirt in almost all of them,” he says. “Then I went and looked on Amazon for some t-shirts that were interesting.” One of my favorites is his “Home is where the wifi connection is,” T-shirt.
On a larger scale, Schultz says that when he looks for pro YouTubers to partner with, he has certain thresholds. At the basic level, they must have at least 500 subscribers, but when his recruiters start making calls, they’re looking at bigger stats: at least 500,000 views a month and with good engagement, something he measures with Tubular Insights marketing tools.
“I think initially [VR Gamers] will be an older crowd, and then it will go down over time as the affordability becomes more elastic for everyone,” he says. “Virtual Reality could be a really big part of [YouTube] gaming, especially 360 videos — I see this being here in one to two years, maximum.”
With 13,104 subscribers and 959,378 views total, for now, Jesse isn't thinking of Mixed Reality as his golden ticket. “I have realistic expectations,” he says. “I’m not counting on YouTube to feed my family. But it sounds like a lot of fun, and if it took off in a dramatic way...”