For the last forty years, television has evolved fairly slowly. That might raise eyebrows in this age of on-demand content, but it’s important not to confuse streaming and binge watching with the technical process of creating television programming. Now, just as 40 years ago, cameras capture two-dimensional pictures that are projected onto a rectangular screen in our living rooms. Aspect ratios have improved and picture quality is far superior, but the passive nature of our viewing experience remains similar to the 1970s.
Recent decades have been filled with dramatic proclamations about how holographic projections or 3D screens would change our viewing habits, but this simply hasn’t materialised to any significant degree. Virtual reality represents one way to enhance broadcast content, and genuine progress is now being made after many false dawns. Platforms like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR can create immersive virtual gaming worlds in front of our eyes, so what can this technology offer broadcasters and audiences?
Stepping Into The Experience
Research by America’s Stanford University [PDF] has indicated that stereoscopic visuals have the same wow-factor as that legendary footage of a train approaching a camera, which had early cinema audiences running screaming into the foyer. HBO drama Game of Thrones has already unveiled a VR experience where viewers can climb The Wall and see The North, although this used a game engine instead of 360-degree cameras. Fantasy and sci-fi are genres ideally suited to VR, though scripting and editing would have to change beyond recognition for a sustainable interactive experience to make sense across a series.
Quite apart from the logistical problems of creating cohesive VR content, there is a question mark over whether viewers actually want to spend half an hour spinning around the Queen Vic followed by an hour immersed in Embarrassing Bodies. VR makes sense in computer games because your movements correspond to events in the game, but there’s less benefit in being able to rotate around a sitcom studio where 2D cameras already occupy the best viewing angles. It seems likely that virtual reality will only be deployed in certain types of programming – Cirque du Soleil has already been filmed in VR, whereas Newsnight hasn’t.
360 Degrees Of Freedom
Although Newsnight might not be the ideal platform for this technology, a world first in journalism occurred during recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. A 360-degree live-motion camera was used to create a fully immersive depiction of the demonstrations. This potential to place people in the heart of the action is already being considered by sporting organisations, desperate to expand their fanbases and improve future income streams. Watching football in VR would convey the same sense of frustrated dejection as actually being at the match, without requiring a lengthy queue for an overpriced half-time pasty.
On the subject of pricing, VR arguably offers even greater benefits to advertisers than broadcasters. A fully interactive car advert could convey more information in thirty seconds than a conventional ad could hope to achieve, and these bit-sized clips may avoid the gradual build-up of motion sickness many viewers have reported even with lag-free VR technology.
Broadcasters could also justifiably charge a premium for VR adverts, which would help to fund the cost of more complex filming and editing. We may soon see dedicated channels for virtual content alongside 3D channels on our television EPGs, with additional charges levied for this dynamic content.
Even with wholehearted investment from manufacturers, and increasing adoption by consumers, VR TV is likely to augment rather than replace today’s voyeuristic box-in-the-corner broadcasting, but there are opportunities to build interactive virtual reality experiences into certain types of programming.
This is especially true with competitive programming like Formula E (which already makes use of social media to involve viewers in the race) or online multiplayer gaming tournaments where there are opportunities to create fully immersive experiences. Its ongoing development, and the degree of public adoption after the underwhelming 3D TV experience of recent years, will be as fascinating to watch as some of the content itself.
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