Innovation

The state of virtual reality content: What the industry is doing to create compelling experiences

While virtual reality headsets are poised for consumer adoption in the months ahead, here's what the industry is doing to build content to show off the value of VR and keep people coming back.

Image: Oculus

Bart Simpson dropped the ball on the all-important follow-up question. For all the relentless hounding as to whether his family was "there yet," he never asked what would happen once they actually were.

For virtual reality, there's an overwhelming need to ask that question. As VR headsets arrive in the hands of consumers in the next year, what will they actually do with them?

The focus has been getting them to market, but that's not enough. There's got to be a compelling reason to use VR again, and again, and again.

That reason has to be great content, but the situation is trickier than the broad concept of having both "enough" and "good enough" VR experiences to make a case for the survival and adoption of the technology.

That's partly because already, VR means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Take Oculus founder Palmer Luckey — recently he said in an interview that for at least the first two years, VR will be for hardcore gamers and enthusiasts who are willing to invest in high-end computers capable of running the Rift.

"I'm the most optimistic guy about VR out there. I have crazy visions of what we'll be doing in the future. But it's not going to reach hundreds of millions of people in the next three years," he said.

That is, in part, why Oculus remains focused on gaming content, and perhaps operates on the assumption that VR will survive long enough to grow beyond gamers.

"There's a big old world out there beyond gamers," said Altimeter analyst Jessica Groopman.

She looks at the behemoths that are standing behind Oculus right now. Facebook, of course, acquired Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion. And in June, Microsoft and Oculus announced a partnership that features the inclusion of the Xbox wireless controller with the Rift, and streaming access to Xbox One games.

"The likes of Microsoft and Facebook, they're not interested in small, segmented markets, they're interested in bringing these thing sup to scale," she said. "It'll die on the vine if it's not something that's accessible, if it's not providing value to a much wider audience, or at least many types of value to potentially many different segments."

The case is similar for the HTC Vive and Sony's Project Morpheus — gaming's the thing.

What's important to note, though, is that virtual reality is a spectrum. Oculus, Vive, and Morpheus represent high-end gaming, but obviously, that's not the whole market.

SEE: Why virtual reality could finally mend its broken promise

Take Samsung's Gear VR, which runs on the latest Galaxy phones. Between the Samsung platform and their Milk VR app, they already offer a slate of 360 videos, photos, games, game demos, cinematic VR, and computer-generated VR experiences.

They're aiming at a far more mainstream audience.

Where content comes from

One thing Oculus and Samsung share, is an awareness for community. It plays out differently for each, though.

Oculus is an open platform. Samsung is not.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach. Oculus Share houses a lot more content than Samsung. Though, users can be fairly certain that what they find on Samsung's platform will be high quality.

Samsung's vice president of strategy and creative content, Matt Apfel, sees it as curation.

At the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference in May, Apfel talked to the audience about the power of community. Making content as a community is one of the greatest challenges, and he said Samsung can't do it alone.

In December, Samsung launched Milk VR, and app that corals 360-degree videos, with the goal of cultivating a "daily VR viewing habit."

Milk VR features a lot of branded content, from videos from music festival South by Southwest, to snowboarding and skateboarding experiences from Mountain Dew.

milkvr.png
Image: Samsung

By partnering with brands, Samsung is effectively helping shape this particular streak of content that's branded, but not aggressively so.

Apfel said they generally work with two kinds of brands — the ones who come in with a very clear idea of what they want and how to do it, and others who just want to make something cool.

Either way, Samsung essentially provides a starter kit to guide the brands through the process of creating VR, complete with studio recommendations, if necessary. And beyond that, they hope to encourage brands to "own" their space, in the sense of becoming a channel for VR content, instead of dabbling one or twice.

He said it's not a hard sell at the moment, in fact, brands have approached them, instead of the other way around. As time goes on, that could change.

"VR is still the good-looking kid at the prom," he said.

Big brands aside, there are many other potential sources of content.

Jaunt is in the cinematic VR game (capturing the real world, versus creating CG worlds). If you've used Google Cardboard or Gear VR to watch Paul McCartney perform from a perch near his piano — that's Jaunt.

Jaunt's vice president of VR content Scott Broock said they initially focused on making the tools to help content creators produce high-quality cinematic VR.

"We came out of stealth, just a week or so after Oculus was bought by Facebook, we kind of stepped into the world with people coming at us with opportunities for content creation," he said.

As time went on, the need became obvious for starting a studio, which they recently announced.

When they forge partnerships, they work with brands as big as Elle Magazine, but also with folks like YouTube star Brandon Laatsch.

"We've been very careful to make sure that we create experiences with partners that reflect the totality of the experiences that we want people to understand that they can have with this new medium," Broock said.

Discovery

Another part of this picture is how users actually find content to consume.

V is a platform that aims to help with the discovery process by essentially putting only two clicks in between a user and the content he or she wants to try — click to download, and click to play.

CEO and co-founder Tyler Andersen said V vets content on about five different computers to make sure it works, and works well. For anyone who's recently spent time trying to install Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, that's a big deal.

V also gives developers analytics on things like crashes, or how long users stayed in the app. If a whole swath of users split after 6 seconds, it's obvious there's something going wrong that the developer needs to fix.

One of the main reasons Andersen sees for why it's important to make it easy to find content, and partake in it without glitches is the old idea of not poisoning the well — word of mouth and negative perceptions will kill you.

"If people fall in love with VR, it makes our jobs so much easier because we don't have to convince anyone anymore," he said. "There needs to be tons of effort and energy put into making sure that it's very easy to play VR and it's not this niche, that neck beards and guys on Reddit really dig into it, that it's something that every person can enjoy."

For Jaunt, mobile will be the driver for discovery and adoption as just about everyone as a smartphone in their pocket.

Though Jaunt apps have already been available through Google Play, as of June 23, they announced a partnership with Google to be a prefered content creator for Google and its partners. In part, that means Jaunt will have early access to Google Jump, the new 16-camera rig announced recently at I/O, along with Google's furthered investment in VR via Cardboard.

"Google and Jaunt deepen their commitment to VR, and to immersive experiences for everyone," the announcement said.

User generated content

Obviously, indie developers will play a significant role in creating VR content, but there's even a level beneath that — the non-developers.

At Facebook's developer conference F8 in March, CEO Mark Zuckerberg traced an evolution of communication from text, to pictures, to video, and on through VR. He talked about the idea of spherical video.

The obvious question is how does one produce spherical video? What Facebook showed was shot with 24 different cameras. That ups the ante just a bit when you consider most of what people snap and shoot can go from their phones to social media in a matter of seconds, without setup, or stitching.

But taking a spin around a place like the 2015 Augmented World Expo, and it's evident that camera-makers and related companies are getting up to speed. 360Heros makes camera holders to house a set of GoPros to take VR-ready video. On the lighter end, Ricoh's Theta is just about palm-sized, less than $300, and lets users see what they shot, using a Gear VR, in minutes.

"[User-generated content] has a role as it has in any digital context for which content is central," Groopman said.

And of course: "It adds to the content pile," she also said.

The killer app

If you spend time with anyone outside the immediate bubble of VR love, you quickly learn that they're still unsure of what utility VR offers. It's cool. Then what?

At the AWE in June, a panel discussed VR content.

One thought the panel seemed to like was that of a "sandbox" app — something like Tilt Brush, which lets users paint in VR and walk around their creations.

tiltbrush.png
Image: Tilt Brush

VR could also be a good opportunity for episodic entertainment.

"We think [consumers are] going to want to be in these beautiful worlds, very masterfully designed and episodically be able to go back to that world over and over again," said Eugene Chung, founder of Penrose Studios, and former head of film and media at Oculus.

Apart from entertainment, there's also a lot of potential for adoption in education. Google announced Expeditions, a program that amounts to VR field trips for classrooms, and to a point, it could get young kids used to using virtual reality regularly.

Investment banking firm Digi-Capital released a forecast that projected virtual reality as a $30 billion market by 2020, made primarily from games, 3D films, and niche enterprise users.

Informally, the metric of choice regarding adoption seems to be whether moms will be sucked into VR. Those poor, un-tech-savvy moms, as the thinking goes.

Either way, whether or not virtual reality content is up to par will be a continuing assessment in the months and years ahead.

"If you [said] in 2007 when the iPhone came out, that 8 years later the killer app on your iPhone would be a taxi caller, people probably would have laughed you out of the room. But today, of course, Uber is a 50-billion-dollar company," Chung said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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