Reality check

More than two decades ago, in 1992, The Stage journalist Francis Reid wrote:

“Theatre is about interactions, and virtual reality technology may possibly be a way forward. Certainly one deserving experiment.”

Those working in the virtual reality (VR) sector have taken that advice to heart, experimenting and innovating to create a truly immersive virtual experience.   

“Obviously we’ve known about it from the 1980s, when it was pretty rubbish,” Anthony Matchett, founder of MelodyVR, tells Access. “It’s been interesting, seeing the industry grow and the market develop.”

While VR has had the kind of fluctuating popularity also enjoyed by 3D television, significant change does appear to be imminent in the industry.

Christmas 2016 may well see VR headsets make the leap into the mainstream, with big-name companies like PlayStation, Samsung and Google throwing their hats into the ring. 

Another factor contributing towards the growth of the industry is referred to, somewhat euphemistically, by VR professionals as ‘lowered barriers to entry’. In plain English? The headsets are getting cheaper.

“Right now if you buy a new Samsung phone you also get a headset,” says Matchett. “That’s naturally driving more accessibility for users. You can buy a headset for £70 or £80; they’re no longer these really expensive pieces of kit.”

While much of the progress in the world of virtual reality has been driven by the gaming industry, events professionals haven’t been resting on their laurels. In the USA, NextVR has built a platform for delivering live events in virtual reality, and partnered with major sports brands such as the NFL and NBA.

When the partnership with the NFL was announced, NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen commented: “NFL fans are constantly craving more football, and this partnership will meet demand by delivering an unprecedented virtual reality experience to fans both in the USA and around the globe.”

In the UK, meanwhile, MelodyVR has been doing pioneering work bringing virtual reality to live events. The company, which expects to launch around early 2017, has spent the last two years filming hundreds of artists at a range of venues and festivals around the country.

“The basic premise is that by using the VR headset you can feel like you’re actually there,” explains Matchett. “You can be on stage with the band, you can be in the crowd; you choose your own journey through the content.

“We always have multiple different vantage points and locations so you can choose where you feel comfortable. Some people might prefer being on stage, some might want to be in the crowd. It’s up to the users to find their own path.”

One of the main benefits of VR when it comes to live events is providing unprecedented access to artists and events around the world. Fans, regardless of their age, location or financial status, can get up close and personal with their favourite artists.

Inition, a UK-based company specialising in the development of immersive, installation-based experiences, has recently completed a VR project with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra.

“We filmed both during the concert and during the rehearsal,” Adrian Leu, CEO of Inition, tells Access. “We also filmed a few of the musicians practising in virtual reality.

“It’s filmed from a vantage point between the conductor and the orchestra, so it’s a seat in the house that no one could experience outside of virtual reality.”

While each user may view the performance from the same vantage point, the 360-degree camera means that each can also create a unique viewing experience, by looking towards the things that interest them personally.

“A million different people could be watching a million different things, each one watching just what interests him or her,” says Uma Jayaram, COO and co-founder of VOKE, a US company using virtual reality to film and broadcast a range of live events. “This is not just bringing a linear broadcast feed into a VR headset, this is game changing.”

Total immersion

Arguably the defining feature of virtual reality is its ability to immersive the viewer in an experience, whether live or pre-recorded. 

“It’s so different, watching something on a screen is relatively boring these days,” says Matchett. “You might watch something on YouTube, but seeing and experiencing it in an immersive format is incredibly resonant with people, they really find empathy with the situation. People feel that they’re present; it’s so different from watching it on a small laptop screen.”

While the experience may be immersive, it is some way from being entirely comfortable, especially for long periods of time.

“VR at the moment is mostly short form, and it applies very well to short form,” admits Leu. “At the moment, people don’t want to sit there for an hour and a half with a headset on; it’s not comfortable, and it’s sweaty.”

“The idea of experiencing a show through VR isn’t for everyone,” says Sammy Andrews, director of music and analysis company Entertainment Intelligence. “Some, like me, will still want to go and get messy in a muddy field with friends and soak in the real thing.”

One thing that might encourage users to wear headsets for longer is a steady stream of high quality content from companies providing virtual reality experiences.

“You see people putting out very bold and very outlandish press releases,” says Matchett. “Unless you can give fans a reason to either get an app or get a VR device it won’t work. A lot of these press releases end up coming to nothing, whereas we’re the opposite way. We say absolutely nothing but we will be launching as a major solution; that’s the way we prefer to approach it.”

Leu agrees that content is a central issue, but feels optimistic about the direction the industry is moving in.

“We are seeing quite a lot of improvements and new technologies which are driving the quality of the content upwards,” he explains. “The problem on the content side is that at the moment it’s probably the most expensive link in the whole chain. The creation of the content is still very bespoke. At the end of the day content is the most important thing.”

“The likes of Sky and the BBC have long been plotting VR broadcasts from events, including sport and music,” adds Andrews. “I think we’ll see VR sections for their content sooner rather than later. Think red button access, but for VR.” 

Looking to the future

Leu argues that it won’t take long for users to begin demanding even more from VR technology: “There will come a time when everyone will just look around and say, ‘It’s great, but so what? What can we do next?’ and that’s where things will become interesting.

“The main progress in this will be in terms of interaction, how will we interact with those environments. How do we move through those environments? How do we prevent people from becoming nauseous?”

While it’s difficult to precisely predict what is on the horizon for virtual reality, it does appear that 2017 is set to be a big year for the industry.

“In 2017 we will see some major winners emerge,” says Jayaram. “The initial euphoria and novelty will have subsided. Hard questions relating to revenue streams, stickiness and the long-term viability of the medium will emerge. This will also mean that the end user will continue to be exposed to new experiences, as people experiment in all kinds of ways.”

Making the headsets more comfortable, and less cumbersome, will remain a priority for most VR companies, as will improving the user experience by increasing the quality of the content and the experience on offer. Live broadcasts will become increasingly commonplace, while Leu predicts a day in the not-too-distant future when fans will be able to buy virtual tickets for events online.

“We’re at the dawn of a new age for VR at events,” Andrews agrees. “It could drive incremental revenue into the sector from people paying to virtually view events.”

“People are also talking about something called foveated rendering,” Leu adds. “It’s a system that follows where you eyes are looking. In theory, your peripheral vision can be quite blurry, you need high resolution where you are looking and the rest can be low resolution.”

This technology would help to reduce the load virtual reality footage places on computers.

Predictions for the future of virtual reality range from practical developments that will be launched in the coming months to more blue-sky ideas for what the technology could ultimately become.

We know almost nothing for certain about where VR is heading, we do know that it is set to make a sizable impact on the world of live event