Virtual reality will soon be inescapable. From electronics stores to major cultural events like South by Southwest and Comic-Con, companies are practically begging consumers to test out headsets and immerse themselves in the latest VR content.
In an unassuming warehouse space turned VR studio on the outskirts of ritzy Santa Monica, California, Jaunt VR is churning out cinematic, 360-degree videos at a furious rate. They’ve produced over 300 pieces of original storytelling in the past four years alone. “Our CEO likes to say we're a four-year-old company in a two-year-old industry,” quips Tom Vance, head of content for Jaunt VR.
Major brands are clearly buying into the hype. Jaunt VR’s video content is so highly sought after that they’ve already developed partnerships with companies like Lexus and Land Rover. It’s also easy to see why virtual reality is exciting for firms used to one-dimensional marketing opportunities. Each project opens the door to a different application of VR technology, from a 200-foot descent down the canopy of the Amazon rainforest to the filming of a Zero G stunt in The Mummy, or an emotionally uplifting ESPN piece about a 17-year-old Ohio State football super fan who suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy.
“Underpinning all of [our content] is our ability to tell stories in a new way that brings the audience closer to stories than ever before,” Vance says. “One of the things that we’re really focused on is delivering not just compelling VR experiences, but how can we create a new reality?”
Content is king in any visual medium, and Jaunt VR is making an aggressive push to broaden the scope of VR. But as the industry moves forward, and users come to expect more than what Google Cardboard and a smartphone can offer, the question still remains: Can these companies convert an interested consumer into a VR enthusiast, one who is willing to shell out anywhere from $200 to $800 for an advanced headset even before factoring in the cost for games? And as VR technology advances at the speed of light, does the industry have the patience to let the market catch up?
“It feels like we're in the MP3 player phase before the iPod,” Vance says. “We're in the earliest phase of adoption.”
Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and companies around the globe are investing significant resources in the next generation of visual storytelling, but they’re doing so at a time when a large segment of the population has yet to be exposed to the latest incarnation of the industry’s groundbreaking technology.
2016 was supposed to be the year when consumers fully embraced this digital trend after all the major high-end headsets—including PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Daydream View, and the new version of Samsung Gear VR—launched within the last 18 months.
It hasn’t happened as fast as many in the industry would like. Most executives I’ve spoken with are quick to acknowledge that the adoption of virtual reality technology by the mass market has been slow. According to Forbes, 100 million VR units shipped in 2016, but 96 percent were low-cost Google Cardboard. Overall, the industry pulled in $1.8 billion in revenue in 2016, according to research firm SuperData. That’s a long way off the estimated $5.1 billionthe same firm projected in January of 2016.
None of the lingering questions and hesitations about virtual reality – motion sickness and high prices among them – have derailed Jaunt VR, which in 2015 received a$66 million round of funding led in part by Disney to bring its total investment to over $100 million.
Jaunt VR has delivered on their goal to create compelling media. But outside of the steady cashflow of major brands, the industry needs to convince consumers that headset technology is a worthwhile investment.
Viewing a trailer on digital video game marketplaces like Steam or GOG is not the most practical way to gauge the value of purchasing an Oculus Rift. Consumers like to test electronic products, whether in store or through friends, before making a financial commitment. Companies like Jaunt VR would ideally like to get headsets on as many heads as possible and let the quality of their storytelling sell itself.
While constant on-the-ground activations to engage new users are costly and time consuming, the industry may get a big assist from one of the most well-known names in entertainment.
In May, IMAX, in partnership with AMC theaters, launched its second-ever IMAX VR Centre in New York. The company turned empty lobby space at AMC Kips Bay 15, one of the theater chain’s most trafficked cinemas, into VR “pods,” essentially a large demo for high-end tech like HTC Vive. The IMAX experiences cost around $1 per minute with most running between seven and 15 minutes. Among the games I demoed at the launch event, the soaring Eagle Flight, a bird’s-eye version of capture the flag, was a standout, as was the sci-fi action shooter Raw Data, which is about as close as you can get to entering the world of TheTerminator.
With AMC offsetting operations and space costs, IMAX is in a unique position to capitalize on its theater and studio partnerships and quickly corner the market for installation-based VR.
“The fact that the consumer proposition [for VR] has been a little challenging so far represents an opportunity for us,” says Robert Lister, chief business development officer for IMAX. “There are more people who want to experience VR but don't want to spend $2,000 on a headset and PC. They know they can get a premium experience here.”
Much of what IMAX has to offer will be original VR content, but the company is also relying on tentpole franchises. The IMAX VR Centre in New York opened with a film tie-in experience for The Mummy and, soon after, they announced a deal with Warner Bros. to release three new pieces of VR content, including tie-ins for Justice League and Aquaman. Those experiences will have an exclusive window at the VR Centres before they’re released for home purchase.
IMAX does everything big. In the short term, however, they’re willing to closely monitor their New York and LA centers and listen to consumers before branching out in what could potentially be hundreds of AMC theaters. They are planning a slow expansion with eight more locations around the world to open in 2017. Thus far, over 20,000people have entered the flagship (non-theater) location in Los Angeles in Q1. The New York VR Centre, with little-to-no marketing support, did more business in its first week than LA did in its fifth.
“We really want to perfect marketing in the theater first,” Lister says. “There’s about a million people that come through [the theater] a year. The more people find out about it, the more you're going to get people to come in an hour early to do this before the movie and after the movie.”
Suddenly, what was supposed to kill the movie theater industry—home gaming, hi-def screens, and easy access to countless media—could actually help redefine the multiplex as a multipurpose entertainment venue. It’s a safe bet for both IMAX and AMC, who are using empty space to showcase VR instead of building out costly, full-scale immersive entertainment centers.
The IMAX VR player’s lounge in New York is purposefully designed to encourage moviegoers to engage with the open-air pods. If IMAX aggressively expands to theaters around the country, this will become the introduction to VR for much of the general public, a community experience akin to the arcades of old.
Guests who love IMAX VR, which is equipped with $800 HTC Vive headsets, can’t simply or cheaply bring that same experience home with them. However, the future may already be in your hands. If the final frontier is the home experience, and you can’t afford full-scale VR, you could try your luck in the realm of augmented reality.
However, one would have to travel to the Norwegian capital of Oslo to participate in what could be a transformative experiment for live TV, gaming, and augmented reality. A company called The Future Group lays claim to the term “mixed interactive reality,” a technology they’ve developed that overlays synthetic images on the real world and distributes that content live on multiple devices, meaning the same video would translate seamlessly from TV to mobile to VR headsets.
As applied to their first television series, the Norwegian game show Lost in Time, it represents a breakdown of the fourth wall. In the eight-episode first season, the coexistence of physical and virtual objects create visual effects that are groundbreaking for television, as contestants compete in challenges like riding on the back of dragons or doing construction work in 1920s New York. Seriously, the visuals are so stunning you need to Google the show to believe it. Through an app, audiences at home can play along with the in-studio contestants.
“[Lost in Time] answers one of the many questions the broadcast industry is asking: What’s next for television?” says Halvor Vislie, Future Group’s chief operating officer. “It’s novel in its visuals but the fact that you can play along with it and engage differently is a brand-new concept. It’s something that makes the TV property live on outside of broadcast hours.”
Each week, an in-studio winner and one lucky player on the app take home what would translate to $120,000 USD. It gives users incentive to return to the app and improve their skills when the show isn’t airing. The stat that Vislie enjoyed throwing around was that there were nearly three times as many games played on the app as the population of Norway.
“We have an average session length of over 20 minutes,” Vislie says. Comparing the fan involvement to a feedback loop, he adds, “It tells us that this way of approaching content distribution really works.”
The Future Group’s Lost in Time, even with a relatively small sample size in its test market of Norway, captured what VR and augmented reality (and now interactive mixed reality) companies are aiming for: audience retention.
While the opportunities are infinite for VR and AR, a breakthrough like Lost in Time is flying under the radar. When looking at the VR industry as a whole, it still feels like early adopters are privy to an underground movement rather than a digital revolution.
So why haven’t average American consumers invested in VR technology yet? Likely it’s because potential adopters haven’t had a transformative moment where they feel fully immersed in another reality—if only for a few seconds. That’s a good problem for the industry to have though, making products so cutting edge that you can’t get people in headsets fast enough for a test run. And with the VR community growing every day, it’s easy to see why optimism nevertheless abounds.
“What keeps each of us inspired is that nothing is easy right now and that's really fun,” Vance says as he’s rushed away into another meeting. “We may look back in five years and say, ‘Oh, what about the good old days when we were hacking everything together?’ But I'm enjoying this because every single thing, for the lack of a better term, is a science experiment.”