To get an idea of how nascent the virtual reality app business is, just ask the people developing them.
“If VR was a baseball game, we’re probably in the second inning,” joked Andrew Woodberry, head of sales and marketing for InstaVR, a San Francisco-based company that builds VR apps for various platforms.
That notion was seconded by Bruce Wooden, head of development for AltspaceVR, an app-based VR service that lets people watch content and play games in a virtual reality environment. “We are in the very early days of VR. Access is still limited due to product availability and the market mostly consists of pioneers and enthusiasts,” he said. “Most people know relatively little about VR and what to expect from it.”
That could change soon. The highly anticipated PlayStation VR headset finally arrives Oct. 13, adding another major standalone VR hardware option to go along with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. And on Oct. 4, Google will announce details of its Daydream VR hardware and platform, serving as a major upgrade to Google Cardboard and as a competitor to smartphone-based VR system Samsung Gear VR. Many major mobile manufacturers are expected to work with the Daydream spec to develop VR content, making 2017 smartphones widely VR capable.
Don’t be surprised if the 2016 holiday season proves to be a huge boost for VR adoption, with all hardware players pushing their wares at retail.
However, with all these different hardware platforms, app developers and entertainment companies looking to expand into virtual reality are facing a unique challenge: How do you make your VR app and content available everywhere, regardless of the device? Even with so many unknowns in the VR app space, content companies aren’t waiting to get into the VR app game.
A VR FIRST…AND SECOND
On Sept. 17, Fox Sports and virtual reality app company LiveLike tried out an experiment—a live VR presentation of the Ohio State-Oklahoma college football game, via the Fox Sports VR app.
The VR presentation pulled in an estimated 37,000 viewers, who averaged 12 minutes of viewing time each, and the numbers and feedback from consumers convinced Fox Sports to do it again Oct. 8 with Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas.
Part of the reason the Sept. 17 VR presentation worked was because Fox Sports “didn’t require a bunch of special equipment,” Mike Davies, senior VP of field and technical operations for Fox Sports Media Group, told Next TV. Instead of messing with the requirements of specialized VR headsets, the network chose to make the VR experience available to a much wider audience, via iOS and Android devices. And there’s room for improvement, Davies said.
“You may not see a huge, appreciable expansion in feature set, but we’re going to build on the momentum [of the Ohio State vs. Oklahoma game],” he said. “We saw promoting it on the linear broadcast, connecting it to the linear broadcast as much as we could…when you do that, it definitely drives downloads. We’re going to try to harness that.”
Miheer Walavalkar, chief business officer for LiveLike, said the Sept. 17 VR NCAA production stands out because it showed that doing live VR isn’t just possible, but that an audience already exists. “We were trying to prove that this can be done live on a mass scale, something no one had ever tried before for multiple platforms,” he said. “It was as much a test for us as it was to prove to people that live sports in VR can work and work well.”
However, Walavalkar acknowledged the challenges facing virtual reality apps when it comes to the diverse number of hardware platforms out and emerging. “Each experience has to be tailored for each particular [device],” he said. “Trying to do it for both headsets and [mobile devices] can be challenging.”
Take the Sept. 28 news from VR entertainment app company NextVR as an example of the challenges facing VR apps. Partnering with concert company Live Nation, NextVR announced it would produce a series of 10 live VR concerts beginning this year (Live Nation and NextVR announced in May a five-year partnership for live VR broadcasts). However, as it stands today, NextVR is not platform-agnostic: The app only works with Samsung smartphones and Samsung Gear VR headsets.
David Cole, cofounder of NextVR, said that the company’s VR app will be available across every VR platform by the end of the year. But he added that there was a reason NextVR launched on the Samsung Gear VR, and stuck with just that platform to this point: being everywhere in the VR app space is not only difficult, it’s a gamble.
“It’s a challenge: make a bet on a particular platform, or figure out how to be ubiquitous while maintaining a quality standard on each of them,” Cole said. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of resources, and a lot of engineering to get it right on each platform, a tremendous amount of sweat equity to get it right.”
Beyond making sure a VR app works across every platform, developers are charged with optimizing their products for each, he added, pointing to the emphasis the PlayStation VR puts on pixel-pattern video quality. “It’s a lot of work,” Cole deadpanned.
“It’s incredibly early days, with every parameter, the user base, device capability, the diversity of applications, the breadth and depth of the things you can do with VR,” he said. “On all of those gradients, I’d say we’re literaly at the beginning of the beginning.”
September saw a lot of VR entertainment app announcements, including one from Discovery Digital Networks, whose Discovery VR app works on iOS and Android devices, along with the Gear VR and Oculus Rift. Discovery announced Sept. 22 that it was launching a new, YouTube-hosted VR content channel—Seeker VR—with documentary pieces from around the world shot in 360-degree video.
“Our goal when building out our Discovery VR app was simple: to create an offering that was flexible for different kinds of viewers—whether watching on their mobile device, with cardboard goggles or a VR headset— while at the same time ensuring that the user experience was intuitive,” said Nathan Brown, senior VP of development and operations for Discovery Digital Networks. “Content is everything to Discovery VR, so we made sure the app experience revolved around that.”
Meanwhile, Time Inc. on Sept. 20 announced the launch of Life VR, a VR app with companion pieces to broadcast content (a VR piece paired with the Ken Burns PBS documentary Defying the- Nazis) and original experiences (“Lumen,” an interteractive meditation experence).
When the Life VR app is released later this year, it will be available as a standalone app for iOS and Android and as a dedicated app (with limited VR content) for Google Cardboard, the Rift, Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive. “The biggest challenges behind creating a VR app for Cardboard were around the user experience, especially helping get the user from holding the phone in their hand to getting it into a Cardboard headset,” said Mia Tramz, managing editor of Life VR. “We have to assume at this point that this is, for most of our viewers, their first experience ever watching VR or using a phone with a Cardboard headset to view content.”
But all these different VR apps for all these different platforms means a lot of quality control work. Few VR standards exist, and because VR app content requires so much effort, just the smallest of inconsistencies between hardware platforms can cause content that performs great on one headset but looks awful on another, said AltspaceVR’s Wooden. “As a result, developers struggle to develop new capabilities and optimize their designs,” he said.
“While having VR as a wide-open new frontier is exciting, it is also challenging for developers,” he added. “The market is nascent and it is difficult to predict how consumers will use VR. It is a situation where anything is possible, and app developers can be intimidated by such a large, blank canvas.”
InstaVR’s Woodberry put it like this: VR app companies and content distributors are going to look at which platforms and hardware win in the consumer market, and plan accordingly. That means it could be a while before a seamless VR app experience arrives. “There’s just a lot of platforms, and we have to make sure to invest our time and energy in the ones that will gain the most widespread adoption and be most valuable to our clients,” he said.
Ramón Bretón, CTO for 3rd i QC, a Culver City, Calif.-based quality assurance and content testing company, said the challenges VR app companies face are a first: Not only are they forced to make the content work everywhere, they’re dealing with a form of content that’s relatively new.
“Although the producers may try to direct the focus of the user at a certain region of the virtual space, some users—particularly upon multiple viewings—will inevitably choose to focus somewhere totally different,” he said. “Even though there may not be any action in that region, what will their experience be? Will it be interesting to look at? Will there be any flaws or lack of detail?”
A developer could spend weeks poring over details of a VR app based on potential user interactions, trying to understand how the user will experience the content, he added. “But when the product hits consumers, it has to be instantly intuitive, or it will be a friction point and distract from the intent of the experience,” Bretón said.