Although the bulk of on-stage discussion at last week’s Social Media Week New York centered on — you guessed it — social media, much of the video-production–related conversation was about virtual reality and 360 video. The formats have become a hot-button issue for sports-video producers of late, as leagues and broadcasters look to take advantage of the cutting-edge technology and evaluate where VR and 360 video stand in the production ecosystem.
Facebook made waves last week, announcing new VR initiatives at Mobile World Congress, and Fox Sports and NextVR had successfully produced the Daytona 500 in VR just days before. These developments follow virtual-reality/360-video sports productions — live and recorded — over the past year by the NBA, WWE, Showtime boxing, PBC on Fox, and others.
VR and 360-video creators are writing a whole-new playbook, casting off the traditional parameters of broadcast and film production in an effort to create the most immersive viewer experience possible. In addition, the technology to produce this content is evolving at a breakneck pace, forcing VR and 360-video producers — not to mention consumers — to constantly adapt.
Here is what some of those in the trenches had to say about VR and 360 video and how they would advise others considering it.
The New York Times has helped expose VR to the masses by producing a host of content and distributing Google Cardboard to subscribers in October. What does the NYT’s 2016 VR roadmap look like?
Sam Dolnick, associate editor, New York Times, an early evangelist for VR at the Times: Going forward this year, we still think that we have a chance at such a new medium so early that we are approaching every film we do as the first [VR] film our audience is ever going to see. We are keeping that wow factor every time. I think that’s going to be very powerful for at least this year.
Jessica Brillhart, principal VR filmmaker, Google: People only have one “first time” for virtual reality. If it’s not good, then they are going to [abandon it]. Creators are running against a lot of [technology challenges]. There is constant attention on the technology being able to play back content as well as possible. We are trying to put this stuff on phones that aren’t built for VR, but we’re trying to make it work. There are different headsets: you can have headsets that are just fine and easy to distribute [content to], or there are amazing high-fidelity headsets, but they are really expensive. The best thing we can do is continue to push and create and have that conversation with technology from a content standpoint so we can push it to be better.
How have consumers reacted to NYT’s VR content, and can you provide insight into their VR-viewing habits?
Dolnick: We have seen the biggest spikes [in viewing], of course, on the launch day, but the next two were on Thanksgiving Day and on Christmas. It’s easy to see why. Although it can feel kind of solitary alone in your little box, it’s actual for sharing. We heard dozens of stories of people showing grandma, their nephews, and passing it around the table. We are really excited about this notion of communal viewing, and we think that is going to happen more and more.
How key is the development and high-quality live VR content to the overall success of the format?
Trevor Guthrie, co-founder, marketing agency Giant Spoon: I don’t think we have seen a good live example [of VR], which is such a key thing for a marketer. We really haven’t seen a good use case for live VR. Live is not about the content feeding at you at that moment; it’s actually about the communal experience of what live means. So I think, as a marketer, we are trying to figure out what are those social moments that make VR necessary to connect a group of people.
The Times’ 360-degree short film “Displaced,” which went inside the EU refugee crisis, has been one of the most talked-about VR pieces. What went into its production?
Dolnick: We see this as journalism, as storytelling, as a new way for The New York Times to bring the world to our readers, which is what we have always done. [For the refugee-crisis film], we spent a lot of time asking what is VR for and why do we tell this story in VR? What the film does is place you in the refugee camps and the lives of children living in war zones. But what it doesn’t do is explain how we got here and why this crisis unfolded.
We found that it’s really hard to put context into the films. What VR is powerful at is placing you somewhere you’ve never been before, so we doubled down on that and then used other channels — the Magazinecover story — to explain the historical roots of this crisis. If we had tried to jam that into the film, I think it would have been far less effective. We focused on placing you there and feeling it in a visceral way and then we are going to explain it to you through another platform. When you have all these mediums — photography, video, text, VR — using each one in the most effective way is really key.
GE launched its first VR experience at the end of 2014 and partnered with the Times’ T Brand Studio to produce its “How Nature Is Inspiring Our Industrial Future” 360/virtual-reality experience for Google Cardboard in November. Why is GE embracing VR, and what does it hope to accomplish by producing this type of content?
Katrina Craigwell, director, global content and programming, GE: “This turned into a great way to present very complicated offerings … to customers, tech media, and people in the industry. We always have the challenge of operating in 175 countries, so customers will probably not be able to walk into one of our test facilities. We have services that allow you to manage your power plant from your home, which is a heady concept, but, when you simulate in VR, it becomes easier to have that conversation. We looked at [VR] early on as the future of computing. So what does that mean for everything from storytelling to sales tools to how engineers, designers, and product developers can collaborate globally? … And what are the implications of that across the board? Even though there is a lot of work to do around that, it made us feel more comfortable [with VR].”
What is your advice to those just starting out in producing VR content?
Dolnick: There is a really fun, vibrant community right now of people thinking about this stuff, and we are going to figure it out on the fly. Some things are going to work, some things aren’t, and we are going to test our way there. So try stuff. The flip side of that is to really think hard about why you are telling this story in VR. If you come up with an idea, ask yourself why isn’t this just a regular video? If you don’t have a good answer, maybe you haven’t quite hit the mark. There is a lot of going after the shiny new object in VR. Try not to just be part of that chase.
Gamers are already leading the charge for VR and 360 video (Minecraft made it possible to export 360 gaming video to YouTube last year). Will this eventually translate into mainstream consumers’ embracing VR and 360 video?
Brian Cristiano, CEO, ad agency Bold Worldwide, which has put a major focus on 360-video production: Gamers are the first adopters for VR technology. These are the people buying Samsung Gear VR and Oculus. As they start to purchase more of this technology and consume more video in 360, it’s going to become commonplace for them to consume other 360 media.
How will the development of ambisonic audio impact the VR experience and help the format to grow?
Cristiano: Where 360 video allows you to film in 360 degrees, ambisonic audio allows you to record audio in 360. If you can combine the two so that, when you look to the left, you not only see what is to the left but you can hear what you would have heard if had turned your head to the left [in reality]. That brings a whole other dimension to the immersiveness of 360 — for video and VR.
In the next two quarters, plus or minus, YouTube is going to release ambisonic audio on the YouTube 360 player. This isn’t happening in years; this is happening in months. That is going to be a game-changer.”
360 video has only recently become available to the masses, as users have been able to upload 360 video to YouTube only since March and to Facebook since September. Facebook announced last week that its dynamic live-streaming technology is coming to Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus. According to Cristiano, Google is not far behind.
Cristiano: Google is working with a separate tech partner [from Facebook], and they are going to release the hardware and software capabilities on YouTube to do live streaming 360 within the next four quarters. Within the next year, you’re going to see live streaming 360 happening.