Will Launch of Oculus Rift Take VR to Next Level?

With the Oculus Rift now officially on the market, here's a look at how VR will impact the sports-production industry

The Oculus Rift virtual-reality system was officially launched this week, giving consumers interested in what many consider the next frontier in consumer video experiences a chance to reach deep into their pockets (the headset/controller costs $599 and needs to be attached to a relatively capable computer) and become a pioneer. Now the question is whether the first wave of reviews for the system and its related content will help move the VR hype into overdrive. The reviews, so far, are mixed but promising. Which, to those in the industry who have experienced VR, seems about right:

The Oculus Rift is now in the hands of consumers, launching a new era in VR.

The Oculus Rift is now in the hands of consumers, launching a new era in VR.

For example, Brian Chen of The New York Times says, “When it comes down to it, I don’t disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg that this is just the beginning of virtual reality. With about 30 games and a few apps available at Rift’s introduction, there isn’t much to do with the system yet. Oculus will eventually need a larger, more diverse set of content to transcend its initial audience of gamer geeks. I, for one, will be waiting.”

Engadget weighs in: “As a first-generation VR product, the Oculus Rift delivers an impressive amount of immersion. The big downside is its price, as well as the fact that it requires a PC gaming rig. For most people, it might be wiser to wait until the price drops for high-end VR.”

And Ars Technica sees it as a decent first step. “It’s unique enough that a lot of the things we take for granted in computing and gaming are struggling to catch up with the new rules necessitated by its entirely new viewpoint. That means this first step still feels a little rough and uncertain in many ways that lessen its sheer impact.”

The Wall Street Journal, however, taps into some of the fears that can grip someone taking the plunge into a virtual world: “The Rift introduction is just the latest in a series of moves forward for the VR format. Samsung’s Galaxy 7 smartphone, for example, ships with a free Gear headset, which allows the phone to be dropped into it, serving as the screen and CPU for the VR experience. And The New York Times late last year shipped out a Google Cardboard to all of its weekly subscribers and, to date, has created seven short-form news and cultural pieces in VR.”

What all of this means for sports-content creators is that fans and viewers now have multiple options when it comes to getting their hands on a VR headset. And, while there has been plenty of dabbling in VR, the announcements are great news for Fox Sports and NextVR, which recently inked a five-year deal calling for the latter to provide virtual-reality services to the former at a variety of sports events. The first official one was the Daytona 500, but the two companies have a relationship dating to March 2015, when they worked together on a trial at the Auto Club 400 NASCAR race in Fontana, CA.

The Pros and Cons of VR
Virtual reality is the latest frontier in next-generation consumer experience (no offense to UHD), and it ticks a lot of the boxes that can make someone a believer. First, it’s cool and definitely can deliver a unique experience. Second, it leverages smartphone technology, meaning that it can be important to the desirable younger generation. And, third, it is relatively easy to set up a VR camera rig, fire it up, and serve content out to the world.

But it ticks some negative boxes as well. First, VR requires headsets, which, for many people, will make the format a non-starter. Even Oculus recommends that people take a break from it after 30 minutes and start out by keeping the experience to around five minutes. The immersive experience is isolating in depriving real-world sensory information to the point where a user can feel vulnerable (it definitely would take some guts to put one on in a public space, such as an airport, where personal effects can easily vanish). And current-generation headsets and smartphones simply don’t have enough resolution and processing power to deliver a truly comfortable experience for long-time viewing.

But those positives and negatives are why the Fox Sports’ commitment is so important to the market segment. First, consumers who have embraced VR get first-class content to experience. If there was one consistent message with the Rift announcement, it was that the content, overall, is lacking in true wow-factor material.

And, most important, it gives Fox Sports a chance to experiment with a full range of VR activities. The Daytona 500 effort, for example, provided multiple closed-circuit VR streams and a live VR feed that grabbed shots from the track wall and a pit stall, as well as prerecorded features.

In addition, the deal gives Fox Sports and NextVR a chance to iron out production techniques while the world waits for headsets like Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR, two units expected to give the format plenty of consumer momentum this spring and summer.

Let the Fun Begin
The fun part of VR will be seeing how content creators deliver a truly immersive experience.

The key word is immersive because it is already clear that simply planting a 360-degree VR camera rig at the mid-court line or in the front row of the stands at a football game or NASCAR race does not yield a compelling experience (this may change as screen resolution improves and the image becomes more life-like).

In fact, many involved in VR — let’s call them the purists — argue that 360 video is not VR. A 360-video experience involves placing a 360 camera in a location and looking outward from that spot. To a VR purist, the experience means creating a virtual environment in which the user can move anywhere.

For example, a few weeks ago, Virtually Live worked with the Scottish Premier League to create an experience that took live match data of player positions and the ball and pumped it through a graphics engine to create a virtual graphical environment of the stadium and the pitch. The user wearing the VR headset had two controllers with which to move anywhere within the environment. Want to watch the match from the midfield? Drop the icon there and away you go. It is not a live video experience, but it is indicative of where the experience will eventually get to as computing power evolves and advances.

Of course, one of the key challenges for VR is going to be that it simply lacks a sense of storytelling. And that is why traditional TV sports coverage works so well: for the most part, the director, producer, and legion of camera operators, replay operators, and audio mixers keep the viewers at home bouncing from one great seat to the next. One thing VR is definitely not great for today is bouncing around a venue without the user’s feeling a bit queasy.

So what does work? A short five- to 10-minute immersive experience in a place where fans can never gain access might be a short-term winner: from atop a hockey net during warm-ups, inside a team’s pregame huddle, at the top of the dugout steps during a baseball game, atop the backboard at an NBA game.

The early days of VR will certainly see the rush to judgment that sometimes plagues innovation. But the five-year deal between Fox Sports and NextVR should provide ample time to give VR the headroom it needs to become a long-term reality.

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