On January 10, 1961, inventor Mortin Heilig of Long Beach, N.Y. filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office for a device he called the Sensorama Simulator. The kiosk-like machine was designed, in its inventor’s words, “to stimulate the senses of an individual to simulate an actual experience realistically.” A person sat on a chair, stuffed his or her face into a screen and was presented with a 3D stereoscopic film complete with stereo sound, aromas and blowing wind.
Heilig succeeded in building a Sensorama, but failed to catalyze an entertainment revolution. Today, Helig’s invention is nothing more than a curiosity. But his idea of immersive, simulated experiences—what we’d now call virtual reality—has arguably never been more relevant. In a wide-ranging report issued in May, the investment bank Piper Jaffray hailed VR as the “next mega tech trend over the next ten years.” Indeed, virtual reality (VR) is riding an immense wave of hype and investment cash. VR firms like Jaunt and Matterport have raised tens of millions of dollars, while big names like GoPro and Google have teamed to develop a VR solution called the Odyssey + Jump to shoot and process 360-degree video. During a recent TechCrunch Disrupt, a trade show where eager startups court venture capitalists and investors, no fewer than 60 companies—nearly a third of the exhibitors—were hawking VR technologies. Photographers and filmmakers are actively exploring the medium, too, as we’ve documented most recently in our story “Jongsma + O’Neill Finding Success with Immersive Storytelling.”
Amid all the hype, it’s only natural for people to question whether VR truly has legs or, like 3D TV, is just another marketing-inflated bubble that will inevitably burst. After all, 3D TV arrived with a similar groundswell of electronics industry hype, only to be met with widespread consumer indifference.
“The 3D TV analogy came up a lot last year,” admits Scott Broock, Content VP at Jaunt. “But we’re not hearing it much this year,” he says.
For filmmaker and Supersphere Productions founder Lucas Wilson, who worked on 3D productions “and has the scars to prove it,” virtual reality is “qualitatively and quantitatively” different from 3D. “There’s not a single movie that you saw in 3D” that wouldn’t translate equally well in 2D, he contends. “VR is not like that. It’s something completely different and it doesn’t translate into any other medium.” The differences extend to the creation of VR content. “3D was really hard to do,” Wilson says. Everything in 3D, from capture to the post-production and distribution was a challenge, particularly for those without the resources of big studios. VR, by contrast, “is easy—a lot of people don’t understand that,” says Wilson, whose recent projects include branded video VR content for Reebok, the Cross Fit Games and DirecTV.
For Wilson, VR constitutes any equirectangular video that can be viewed in either a dedicated VR headset, such as the Oculus, or via a mobile phone viewer, such as Google’s Cardboard or Samsung’s Gear VR. The experience can be as simple as having a 360-degree view of a given scene or environment that responds to your head movement. Filmmakers can record this video using anything from an array of REDs to a GoPro rig, Wilson says, and stitch it together using software from Kolor (now owned by GoPro).
For Jaunt, which is promoting a concept they dub “cinematic VR,” the experience is richer. Rather than capturing a single, flat 360 x 360 image, Jaunt’s bespoke camera records spherical video stereoscopically, to provide a greater sense of depth and dimension, explains the company’s Director of Hardware Engineering, Koji Gardiner. Audio is captured using an omnidirectional microphone and mixed using an ambisonic technique, giving the listener a sense of the direction the sounds originate from. Jaunt used this approach to create a VR video experience for the outdoor clothing brand The North Face, which was distributed as a Cardboard-compatible app in the Google Play store.
Despite the enthusiasm around the technology, VR isn’t to scale yet as a mass market medium, says Lee Einhorn, Creative Director and Associate Partner at the advertising agency Venables Bell & Partners. Einhorn wasn’t at liberty to discuss current VR projects, but says his firm has been experimenting with VR and actively discussing it with clients. Many brands, he says, aren’t yet convinced they’ll get the most bang for their advertising buck. “At the end of the day, clients are going to look at the dollars and the reach they get [with VR],” Einhorn says.
Low sales of VR headsets bolster that skepticism. According to the market research firm Futuresource Consulting, just 280,000 head-mounted displays shipped globally in 2014. However, this year, Futuresource Associate Director of Consumer Electronics Simon Bryant expects the number to grow to 450,000 headsets and up to 20 million by 2018. The year 2016 will be big for the VR headset category when long-anticipated products from Oculus, Sony and game-maker Valve all hit the market. While the growth is expected to be strong, VR headsets will still be a “very, very small category,” in the larger consumer electronics universe, he says.
The market looks larger, though, when you add in mobile phone VR viewers based on Google’s open-sourced Cardboard design. About 1 million Cardboard-based viewers have shipped to date, according to Google, and the Cardboard app has been installed at least 1 million times since 2014. Piper Jaffray analysts believe that mobile viewers derived from Google Cardboard will soon be bundled free with smartphone purchases and that Apple will make their own VR viewer by 2016, accelerating adoption among mainstream consumers.
While VR doesn’t yet have as large a reach as other media, ad agencies like Venables Bell are still very excited about it since it taps into a theme they’re keen on, Einhorn says. “We’re all looking to deliver experiences now and VR is great at that.” Futuresource’s Head of Broadcast Equipment, Adam Cox, agrees. “If there’s one thing VR delivers that 3D couldn’t, it’s a ‘wow’ experience.”
Just what that experience will be is still in flux. Gaming is widely expected to be the major arena for VR content, at least initially. By 2025, however, the content side of the VR market, including education, social experiences, movies, gaming and adult entertainment will reach $5.4 billion in revenue, according to Piper Jaffray’s estimates.
For photographers and filmmakers, Wilson sees a huge upside in VR’s expected growth. Its increasing popularity will create a demand for new VR content by both marketers and consumers. For one thing, it’s impossible to repurpose older content for VR. If VR does take off, Wilson says, it could create markets for VR stock footage. Both Broock and Wilson believe the best VR experiences are shorter ones, spanning 1 to 5 minutes. “I’m not saying you can’t do a 30 minute or longer VR film, but you’d have to serialize it,” Broock says.
And while brands experiment with how best to integrate VR into their branding campaigns or content marketing, Einhorn sees the creation of VR projects as a competency that photographers and filmmakers must acquire sooner rather than later. “I’ve already had photographers and filmmakers tell me that they can now do VR. I think they have to learn it,” he adds. “Otherwise, it’s like choosing not to be a part of the future.”