4 Things To Learn From VRT’s New Virtual Reality Newscast

by Jef Buseyne - February 25, 2016

Image title

Virtual reality can take you anywhere. The question is: where can you take virtual reality? The new 360° VR newscast, launched by our own national broadcaster VRT (made by Fisheye) last week, provides a dazzling Belgian benchmark, if you were to give Virtual Reality a try.

VR – or: the promise of VR – has been around for decades. You might remember it as that fad of the early nineties that never came to be. Main obstacle back then: pc’s lacked computing power, resulting in astronomic, almost obscene pricetags for even the most basic VR systems. The consumer side of VR quickly found itself overshadowed by a more promising tech revolution: the World Wide Web.

So was that it? Game over for Virtual Reality? Not by a long shot: VR continued to be developed for years to come, be it in the ecosystems of high-end (and often military) research and training. Whenever it is prohibitively expensive or simply too dangerous to allow trainees to use the real equipment (think of airline pilots, oil drilling crews, astronauts….), chances are they spend hours in a simulator before even laying eyes on the machine they’ll be operating.

Fast forward to 2016 and Moore’s Law hasn’t let us down just yet. Since its last update, my personal home computer’s CPU and GPU combined now contain 3-and-then-some billion transistors. Your smartphone now has hundreds of times the computing power of anything available to consumers in the early nineties. On top of that, hardware prices have been dropping steadily, exponentially even if you factor in performance.

Two years ago Facebook acquired tech startup Oculus. While the first consumer-grade Rift HMD (or Head Mounted Device) still has to hit the markets, demand is already exceeding Oculus’ manufacturing capacity by far. At a price point of 600 dollars (the extremely powerful workstation you’ll need to run it not included), the Rift is still far from available to everyone, which obviously is a general prerequisite to make it interesting from a marketing point of view.

Enter Google. At the Google I/O 2014 developers conference, Google launched their Smartphone based Cardboard VR platform, aimed at developing accessible VR tools to allow everyone to enjoy Virtual Reality in a simple, fun, and natural way. While the first versions of Cardboard took the form of a pre-cut corrugated paper template to fold into a viewer yourself (Google even put up the instruction manual to build your own from scratch), it didn’t take long for other manufacturers to notice the potential and start producing their own Cardboard -based viewers. On the lower end, you’ll find endless variations of the basic corrugated paper design in all sorts and shapes. The premium end features extravagances such as Knoxlabs’ hand-built Aluminum-and-wood VR viewer or Zeiss’s VR One viewer, featuring the manufacturer’s prestigious precision glass. Toy manufacturer Mattel even decided to revive another relic from days long past: the 75-year old Viewmaster, arguably the first “consumer VR device” ever.

Basic Cardboard viewers can be had at a single- or lower double-digit price point, the premium models go for anything between € 30-150. In January 2016, Google announced that over 5 million Cardboard viewers had shipped, over 1,000 compatible apps had been published and over 25 million app installs had been made. VR for the masses is here, thank you Google.

Image title

The resurgence of VR (starting with Oculus’ Kickstarter 4 years ago) hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors by the way. According to Goldman Sachs, virtual and augmented reality will become “the next generation computing platform.” Goldman believes the VR/AR market will reach $ 80 billion by 2025, roughly the size of the current desktop pc market.

OK. Back to VRT’s Virtual Reality Newscast. Let’s take a look at what makes this particular 360° video so special and what important lessons it’s teaching about VR as a medium.

1. Make peace with the price tag

Or: forget VR if you’re not willing to pay for top-notch production quality. Here’s why. 
Regular video does not claim to be immersive: people view it mostly - if not solely - on 2D surfaces, which greatly restricts their field of view. This allows the producer to just show the audience what he wants and get away with a lot of less-than-perfect visual trickery.

VR however, is a completely different animal: the immersive nature of the experience requires attention to detail in the production phase, as bad stitching, instant “teleporting”, a sudden drop in frame rate and numerous other glitches can easily pop a user’s ‘bubble of immersion’. This can greatly reduce the impact of the experience and even cause strong (yet temporary) feelings of nausea and disorientation in some unlucky subjects.

In the VRT’s virtual newscast, production quality is of very high standards: no visible stitches, perfectly leveled shots, ...

The lesson? Poor VR quality comes at a particularly high cost. VR is not regular video and hence shouldn’t be produced it as such.

2. Cut ‘the straight cut’

Up until now, many 360° videos uploaded to YouTube/Facebook feature what is known in filmmaking as a ‘straight cut’: as one video fragment ends, another takes over instantly. While this type of transition (or lack thereof) works very well in traditional video, in VR experiences it feels like you’ve just been “teleported” without any cue of what was going to happen.

This is perhaps the main innovation VRT News brought to the VR scene: a clever transition signals something is happening and subsequently brings the viewer into the new space in a pleasant way, negating the risk of piercing the audience’s ”virtual bubble”.

This so-called scene-to-scene transition works astonishingly well in VR. Seeing is believing: in the clip below (which is an unraveled 360° image showing the entire sphere around you and looks very different in VR) you can see exactly what is going on: 

3. Look for the medium’s language

Whenever a new medium is born, it takes a while for even the producers to wrap their heads around how to properly use it. At the advent of cinema, filmmakers happily borrowed techniques and inspiration from the media they had at the time, c.q. the theatre. See, for example, early films such as Georges Méliès 1902 silent masterpiece “Le voyage dans la lune”. These were basically theatre plays, caught on film.

Over time these concepts changed and evolved into the entire framework of consensus everybody now knows as the semi-universal language of movies.

The same is true for Virtual Reality: in movie language, conception and production, VR roughly compares to video as video compares to radio. Over time and through experience, filmmakers as well as the general public will discover, construct and finetune a similar consensus of what visual, auditory and other cues work and do not work in VR, leading to a “VR language” of its own.

4. Go anywhere

The surface of Mars, the bottom of the ocean, or a simulated rollercoaster ride through the human body: virtual reality could literally take you anywhere you imagine. Try to take your audience to places where the VR aspect adds merit to the experience. Bringing your audience to trivial places such as the supermarket around their corner or an empty bus stop is bound to bore easily, unless something really interesting is happening there, of course.

That’s a last thumbs up for ‘the VR in VRT’: locations in the new newscast are made to work wonderfully well.

VR project in the pipeline? Pitch it: welcome@thesedays.com

Jef Buseyne

Performance Marketer