• Type: Whitepaper
  • Date: October 2016

vr

Virtual reality (VR) is on a fast track, both as a business and as a component of media culture.

Platforms such as video recorders and optical discs took several years to reach critical inflection points, even with the power of tech giants like Sony and Philips, as well as major movie studios behind them.

VR, on the other hand, seems to be going from zero to 60 in a flash, even as the supporting hardware and content infrastructures are being built around them. Familiar names, such as Samsung and HTC, are being joined — and arguably overshadowed —  by new ones like Oculus (now owned by Facebook), ReTrack and Homido on the hardware side, while content is coming quickly from Jaunt, Within and even the New York Times’ T Brand Studio.

Much of this new alt-reality universe is converging around live-event production. NextVR, a Laguna Beach, Calif., company that emerged from the remnants of a less-successful format (3D television), is emblematic of the technology’s efflorescence. It has deals in place with content developers and distributors such as Live Nation, the world’s largest concert producer, for VR versions of shows, and with Fox Sports and ESPN for events including the U.S. Open tennis tournament and NASCAR. It also "VR-ed" this summer’s Democratic National Convention, and employed seven cameras and multiple microphones and switchers during the Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star Game to create user-accessible VR perspectives of the event.

The sector’s rapid growth is being fueled by torrents of venture capital. NextVR recently raised $80 million in a Series B round, while Magic Leap, another VR technology developer, just completed what may be the largest C-round of financing in history: $793.5 million, with a total of $1.4 billion invested so far.

Grassroots Innovation

But not all innovation is happening on tech's biggest stages. With $878,000 in seed money from Ohio University’s Innovation Strategy program, that college’s year-old Immersive Media Initiative may not boast the same stratospheric dollar figures as VR’s commercial hopefuls, but it’s already making its presence felt on the technology’s burgeoning academic side, helping nudge VR into actual reality.

The Immersive Media Initiative team is actively partnering with Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Patton College of Education and the Scripps College of Communication and its GRID Lab, which offers students access to facility, equipment, software and real-world learning experiences in research and development in immersive media.

“Virtual reality has the potential to transform live events,” says Josh Antonuccio, Director of the Immersive Media Initiative, part of OU’s Scripps College of Communication School of Media Arts and Studies. Antonuccio’s prediction applies to putting viewers —  virtually —   in the front row at events. But he says the real impact comes from VR’s unique potential to be what he calls “an empathy machine” — placing people virtually, but connecting them in a very real, emotional sense that goes beyond what any other real-time media platform, such as streaming, can accomplish.

“Instead of a report or a conventional video, the United Nations commissioned a virtual-reality video of the situation in Syria and it had diplomats crying,” he says. “Its immersiveness made a connection with people that no other media could: One person viewing the recording saw a child waving, and he waved back.”

Antonuccio says platforms such as the Oculus Rift are amazing, but that the next generation of VR viewers, such as the imminent Microsoft HoloLens, with its relatively streamlined design, will not only take the technology further, but also make clear that VR’s provenance is rooted more in video games than what we see on a typical flat-screen TV. The HoloLens can trace its lineage to Kinect, an add-on for Microsoft's Xbox gaming console that was introduced in 2010, and is closer to what might have been envisioned for Google Glass, the head-worn optical computing system Google introduced in 2013 that fizzled in the consumer market.

“What this round of VR viewers will do is further increase immersion and believability of the VR experience,” he says.

The Immersive Media Initiative’s first VR project was a recording of a performance by Courtney Barnett, a young Australian punker at the Nelsonville Music Festival last summer. In that case, VR put the viewer on stage with the band, allowing a 360-degree perspective to be manipulated remotely, with each viewer able to control pitch and yaw perspectives independently. Antonuccio says the project is representative of how VR can be used to extend participation in events, and at a much deeper level of emotional engagement than 4K videoconferencing can achieve.

“If, for instance, you couldn’t get to Coachella,” Antonuccio says, noting that the Southern California festival this year offered VR views of certain stages for the first time, “you could still get close to the artists you wanted to see. Maybe closer than you would have if you had been there.”

The Tools

Each of the VR companies is developing its own platforms and software, but the Immersive Media Initiative team has been able to leverage a number of off-the-shelf systems for VR — the same ones that are also available for AV professionals and event developers.

For audio, the team has been using Core Sound’s TetraMic, a portable, single-point, stereo and surround-sound Ambisonic soundfield microphone. Antonuccio says he’s awaiting wider availability of Sennheiser’s new AMBEO multichannel sound-capture system, which assembles four high-resolution capsules in a tetrahedral arrangement.

For video, GoPro has been the go-to solution for the Immersive Media Initiative team, as it has been for most VR start-ups, specifically the 4K-capable GoPro Hero model, which was used for the Courtney Barnett shoot, in addition to a Kodak PixPro camera.

There are certainly higher-end VR production cameras — upwards of $45,000 — that offer 360-degree spherical video and 360-degree surround sound in a single package. But as much as Antonuccio might fantasize over that kind of hardware, he says that the much more affordable devices now readily available are sufficient for most any application, including live-event production.

However, he points out, trends in event production are already leading to more permanent venue-style applications of VR, such as the virtual showrooms being created by Toyota’s advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and the virtual test drives that Mitsubishi is developing for its new Mirage G4, which car-averse but tech-savvy Millennial buyers can take on their smartphones or laptops.

VR’s 'Complex Language'

Companies are in the process of building a creative infrastructure for VR, even as the technical platforms rapidly move forward. At the AES Convention in Los Angeles, Sept. 28-Oct. 2, the Audio for Virtual and Augmented Conference co-located its first event, with sponsorship by Dolby, DTS, Gaudio, Audiokinetic, Dysonics, Occulus, Nokia, Sennheiser and others.

The event’s agenda offered practical advice on a number of audio-related issues for VR, such as Creating Immersive & Aesthetic Auditory Spaces for Virtual and Augmented Reality and Capture, Rendering and Mixing for VR. But although VR is an extension of existing AV media platforms, it is also its own animal, with unique characteristics.

“Just as TV programming progressed from live broadcasts of staged performances to today’s very complex language of multithread, long-form content, so such media will progress from projecting existing media language into a headset experience, to a new VR/AR/MR-specific language that both the creatives and the audience understand,” said Philip Lelyveld, Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Initiative Program Manager at the USC Entertainment Technology Center, during his keynote at the conference.

Best practices will evolve over time, but in the interim event producers and AV professionals getting into VR will have to make up many of the rules as they go along. For instance, Antonuccio asks, where does a VR video director go when he or she calls out the event-production equivalent of “Action!” for an immersive video?

“You’re not behind a camera anymore, because the camera is 360 degrees,” he says. “Where do we hide?"