The music industry’s main interaction with Cannes is for the Midem conference in June, and for some companies, the Cannes Lions advertising festival that follows it.
April, however, sees the television industry come to town for MIPTV. It’s part market for buying and selling new shows, and part conference to talk about the business and technology trends driving TV forward.
Just like Midem, there’s often one topic at MIPTV that generates lots of heat. This year, it was virtual reality. Music Ally was there for many of the key VR sessions: here are some of the main things we learned, and what we think they mean for our readers in the music industry.
There are probably only 20m headsets out there
Don’t believe (all) the hype: the current wave of VR headsets aren’t yet mass-market products by any stretch of the imagination.
The number quoted by a number of MIPTV speakers was 20m headsets out in the market, with 10m of them being Google Cardboard and 5m Samsung’s Gear VR – both examples of ‘mobile VR’ devices that use smartphones as their processing guts and screens.
On the non-mobile ‘tethered’ side – headsets that require a games console or computer – there are barely more than 1.5m on the heads of consumers: 915k PlayStation VRs (an official number from Sony); 420k HTC Vives and 300k Oculus Rifts (external estimates).
Analysts do expect this to grow though: figures from Greenlight Insights quoted during MIPTV predicted 181.1m VR headsets by 2021, by which point the VR market will be worth $59.1bn annually.
The lesson for music: These are still early days for the current generation of VR. With the tethered headsets also skewing much more towards games, musical VR experiences may be best suited to Samsung and Google’s mobile VR devices.
VR technology alone won’t wow people
The first time you put a VR headset on and try a game or app, it’s quite exciting. But as several MIPTV speakers warned, that novelty factor soon wears off: and all the more quicker if that first experience isn’t very good.
“We’re in the post-wow era, where storytelling has to come to the fore and audiences will become more demanding,” said Ben Smith of VR firm Laduma, during the conference.
Google’s head of Daydream business development Greg Ivanov also warned of a ‘Cardboard curiosity’ barrier: where people are curious enough to try VR, but then lose interest if their first experience disappoints.
“There’s plenty of bad VR out there, and consumers are thrown by seeing bad experiences,” added Brian Seth Hurst, from VR producer StoryTech Immersive. Ivanov was clear that developers have to put proper thought into their VR projects’ unique nature.
“Good VR is an experience that’s well thought out in terms of why it is actually in VR. Good VR has a proposition that is unique to VR. It sounds really obvious, but it’s key,” he said.
“It has to be better in VR, or only in VR… 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.”
The lesson for music: ‘Better in VR or only in VR’ is a good motto to adopt when planning musical VR projects. From studio interviews to concert videos, how many current examples really meet Ivanov’s suggestion?
Video good, but game engines better?
There are basically two current types of VR content: 360 videos filmed with cameras; and computer-generated virtual worlds created using game engines. A lot of musical VR projects fall into the former camp, but perhaps the greater potential will come from the latter.
“My personal mission this year is really to try to work with interactivity as much as possible. The game engine is 100% the future of this industry,” said Richard Nockles, the creative director of British broadcaster Sky’s VR studio.
“I’m fascinated with how this is going to work: the controllers, interactive, branching narratives… 360 video is unbelievably heavy [to stream]. I would love to watch a 90-minute feature film, and the only way you could do that now is through game engines and animation.”
Simon Benson, from Sony’s PlayStation VR team, agreed, and sketched out how it might work for TV production.
“Maybe when we’re making a new piece of content… a drama as an example, you capture the performances of all your actors. Maybe that’s motion-captured, and their likenesses are recreated, and you’re putting all that into one of these game engines,” he said.
“Once it all exists digitally as a complete piece, you can choose where to put the cameras later. You can choose where you want the lighting later. You can do all that, fundamentally, in the post-production process.”
The lesson for music: Video is just as natural a gateway into VR for music as it is for television, but why not also explore partnerships with developers and startups who know their way around game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine, and think about true interactivity rather than just a shifting gaze?
Virtual reality? It’s the new theatre!
Several speakers at MIPTV compared virtual reality to theatre, and the comparison is useful for any music company thinking about what VR content can become.
“When you think about creating content for virtual reality, it’s more like theatre than movies. But it’s a very unusual theatre: for one person,” said Benson.
“And as with any theatre performance, if there are lots of actors are 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. It’s more like a theatre-type production, but you have this audience of one.”
That brings its own creative possibilities: a VR ‘production’ can bring that audience member into the action. “You can invade their personal space! You can really engage with the player now,” said Benson.
“Some of our best directors are transitioning from theatre, who understand groups of people, dynamics and choreography,” said Sol Rogers from Rewind, a VR studio that’s just made an experience for the new Scarlett Johansson film Ghost in the Shell.
The lesson for music: There may be talent to be tapped in the live music industry, from stagecraft experts to choreographers. And while the idea of invading a viewer’s personal space may sound worrying, there’s also lots of creative potential here.
VR consumers may need a little guidance
Benson also made an interesting point about VR experiences where the viewer is the main character: exploring an environment and/or story at their own pace. It poses one particular challenge.
“If you have a strong narrative that’s very important and you make this person the main character, how can you guarantee they’re going to drive the narrative in the way you want? They may be a brave person, they may be a shy person. They may be gung-ho, or not,” he said.
One possible solution is to have them guided by a virtual character: in cinematic terms the viewer becomes the ‘buddy’ to the virtual ‘lead’. Or as Benson described it: “more Robin than Batman… more Chewbacca than Han Solo”.
The lesson for music: VR experiences based on artists have an obvious ‘lead’ – the artist. Whether in 360 video or truly-virtual world experiences, the musician can function as the guide for fans exploring their environment.
Social VR startups are already live
Facebook thinks social interaction will be a big part of VR’s mainstream future – no surprises there – but there are also startups investigating the potential. US firm AltspaceVR and British rival vTime both offer virtual environments for people to meet, chat and play in.
“We like to think of ourselves as a place where people can hang out when they can’t physically be together,” said Jane Fang, director of business development for AltspaceVR. “We’re also really well known for our marquee events, whether it’s a concert or a comedy show… The whole point is you can do it with others.”
vTime has been downloaded more than 500k times since its launch just over a year ago. Its CMO Julian Price outlined its motivation. “We believe the future of VR is sociable, not social,” he said.
“We believe current social networks: Facebook, Twitter, are mostly asynchronous networks where you post and somebody later comes along [and reads, comments on and/or shares it]. They may be social, but they’re not sociable. Whereas we believe that virtual reality is very sociable: you meet with your friends.”
vTime too is planning to bring streaming media – Price mentioned video, TV shows and films – into its app, to spark more virtual conversations.
“Because VR is this synchronous thing where people get together and talk in real-time. It isn’t like other social networks,” he said. “The social networks promote digital narcissism, and the extreme example of that is probably the new American president! Technologies like ours don’t. They promote people sitting and talking together.”
The lesson for music: if worlds like AltspaceVR and vTime catch on, they could be interesting promotional partners for labels and artists. Meanwhile, the social features of these startups could inspire ideas for any artists launching their own VR worlds.
It’s a hard life for a VR startup
vTime’s Price was interesting on another point: the struggles for VR startups at a time when headset sales aren’t yet huge, and the market for content is still nascent. Yet developing VR content can be an expensive business.
“The biggest challenge our company – and the vast number of companies I know in virtual reality – is facing is survival until such time as any of us can actually make some money out of this!” he said.
“Any commercialisation that we do plan to do with vTime, the vast majority of it is reliant on reach and distribution, and a large user base… that’s not going to happen until 2019, 2020… the challenge is survival until then.”
He later returned to the theme. “The kind of companies who will survive are companies like all of ours that have already got something out there that is proven and working; people who keep their burn rate low, stay very very lean and agile,” said Price.
The lesson for music: We’ve written about music startups including MelodyVR, TheWaveVR, Inception, Mbryonic, VRTIFY, Endless Riff and NOYS in recent months, among others. These too will be facing up to these challenges, so it’s worth thinking about how their music-industry partners can support their efforts to survive and eventually prosper.
Children may be early adopters of VR
Will children be keen on VR? And if they are, will their parents let them use these headsets, given the lack of detailed research about VR’s effects on younger minds. Even so, there are indications that the technology could catch on with kids.
Peter Robinson of research firm Dubit claimed at MIPTV that his company’s most recent survey found that 20% of American under-16s have tried VR, for example, while the percentage for British children is 18%. “It’s pretty much doubled over the past 12 months,” he said.
Former BBC executive Marc Goodchild, who currently works as head of digital content strategy and product at Cartoon Network’s parent company Turner, talked about the creative possibilities.
“It allows you for the first time to put children into their favourite programmes with their favourite characters. Or even to become their favourite characters,” he said, during a panel session where creative VR apps like Tilt Brush were praised for their appeal to children, even though they’re all-ages in focus.
Goodchild also said that children will demand interactivity from virtual reality. “In a kids world, actually most media is interactive. They’re used to having agency in whatever they do. It’s only the television which is the last bastion of passive viewing,” he said.
“So although a lot of the VR conversations you’ll hear here are either cinematographic, or it’s a gaming experience, the kids space is a lot more blurred. Kids will expect when they’re in that world to have some agency. The first thing they’ll look for is the hands… It’s going to be hard to expect children to watch something sitting back almost tied to their chair, and only able to look around.”
The lesson for music: There’s clearly potential for some fun (mobile) VR experiences around pop artists with young audiences. But as with Cartoon Network’s impressiveAdventure Time: I See Ooo VR app, interactivity will be important rather than just linear 360 video.
Break the rules!
Finally, a rousing call to arms for anyone creating VR content: don’t be too quick to bow to anyone telling you what you can and can’t do in this evolving medium.
“There are no rules in VR, so if someone tells you ‘here are the rules and the way you should do it’ you should break those rules straight away!” said Brian Seth Hurst at MIPTV
“I don’t believe in rules: it’s using your head, it’s using your gut… You just have to understand the technology and environment you’re in to make it work… Forget what you learned in film school, forget everything you know about film for just one moment, because you are dealing in a new medium that’s a ton of fun.”
The lesson for music: No surprises here: break the rules! Experiment, explore and don’t be too fast to fall in behind conventions.