Video games remain the big content draw at this still-nascent stage of the virtual reality market, but VR’s capacity to support a small-but-growing batch of live events has enabled producers and networks to experiment with and create the kind of high-quality experiences that can help it break into the mainstream.
Today’s big challenge: To figure out how much to invest in live productions as the VR market tries to scale up, build and establish best practices and overcome such technical hurdles as bandwidth and latency.
“At a high level, I don’t think there’s ever been more interest in [live] VR as there is today,” Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, a live VR specialist that recently inked a five-year deal with Fox Sports, said. “The live part, and really feeling transported to an event, that’s something really special.”
Of recent note, NextVR teamed with NBC Sports Group to produce live VR coverage of the Kentucky Derby that relied on seven specialized cameras. Five were placed trackside to capture an uninterrupted view of the race (including one adjacent to the owners’ suites), and two cameras were stationed in the paddock area to cover the horses as they headed to the starting gate.
PRIMING THE PIPELINE
Fox Sports, which has produced a handful of live VR productions over the last year with partner NextVR, including the 2015 U.S. Open golf tournament, has some bigger plans in the works for this year’s Open, set to start June 13.
In addition to having a larger presence (last year, Fox’s VR experience for event was limited to a somewhat closed audience), the plan is to “add more interactivity,” Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at Fox Sports, said.
Fox Sports is still ironing out those details, but the plan does include an option that will allow VR users to move around the course, alongside some short-form, companion pieces.
“We believe that short-form is something that’s going to be super-important for VR and have that … sort of orbit around the live nucleus of the production,” Davies said.
Live VR isn’t the domain of sports TV giants alone. The Pennsylvania Cable Network, the statewide public-affairs channel that reaches about 3.3 million Keystone State homes, dipped its toes into the virtual waters on May 28 with a live 360-degree video feed from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Track and Field Championships.
PCN, in partnership with VR production specialist Greenfish Labs, streamed the event live via its YouTube channel using a special camera perched outside the track at Shippensburg University.
“It’s not to compete with the standard coverage,” Corianne Schrim, PCN’s digital content manager, said. “It just enhances it.”
More than 1,700 people watched the live feed, according to Joel Bechtel, PCN’s vice president of marketing and brand development.
Part of the idea was to reach a younger audience with a stream that could be viewed and manipulated on YouTube and also accessible on VR mobile headsets, Bechtel said.
“The ability to do this live is relatively new,” Bechtel said. While the track event was PCN’s first experience with VR, the network is considering something similar for the Pennsylvania Farm Show, an event that typically draws more than 500,000 people, next January.
One challenge ahead for live VR is keeping that content engine fed in a way that will keep viewers coming back.
“The fact of the matter is there’s a finite amount of content out there for VR,” Davies said. “Getting fresh content for VR is going to be difficult, but I think that’s where sports is able to come in and continually refresh the need for new and exciting content for these early adopters.”
Allen agreed. “An issue always is whether there’s enough compelling content to keep people’s interest in VR,” he said.
In addition to deals with partners like Fox Sports, NextVR will also look to keep that content pipeline primed thanks to an agreement with LiveNation, which produces more than 25,000 concerts and other live events per year (but not all in VR, of course).
FROM ‘WOW’ TO ‘WATCH’
“There’s a calendar of events for the first time [for VR], as opposed to all the one-off stuff,” Allen said. “We talk about it going from ‘wow’ to ‘watch.’ ”
Another signficant hurdle faced by live VR productions is having enough bandwidth to support the streams, which require more data than traditional 2D streams.
The good news, Davies said, is that solid connections are usually available in most professional venues, noting that the Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa., site of this year’s U.S. Open, “has gobs of bandwidth there.”
But the questions that surround potential data limitations are among the reasons why Fox Sports’s early VR productions use a 180-degree field of view. New compression schemes, Davies said, will concentrate the pixels where the viewer is looking and “generalize” them outside the viewer’s gaze.
“There are arguments that 180 [degrees] is OK for most sports, and you wouldn’t be wrong,” he said. “But the full immersive experience of being somewhere where you can look in all directions is something that we’re definitely looking forward to, as well, from a production standpoint.” NextVR has been tackling the bandwidth issue since 2009, as it was founded on a stereoscopic compression technology originally used for 3DTV that has since been applied to VR.
NextVR’s platform is able to stream VR at speeds from 4 Megabits per second to 8 Mbps, Allen said. “We’re working on getting that even lower.”
And live VR’s tech challenges aren’t just about pushing out bits. Perhaps more important is providing a VR stream with adequate latency.
“VR takes bandwidth to a whole new scale,” Loudon Blair, corporate strategy officer at Ciena, a top networking supplier, said, noting that some camera rigs could require 100 Gigabits per second of contribution bandwidth.
THE LATENCY EFFECT
But latency is also key. That’s because even small delays in routing the round-trip signal can have a major adverse effect on the VR experience, potentially causing motion sickness for the viewer.
While that’s not as much of an issue with VR content that is downloaded locally, it can be a major problem if the content is being streamed and the latency and bandwidth capabilities aren’t at optimal levels.
The trend to help solve that is moving more computing toward the edge of the network, Blair said.
“It’s an ecosystem challenge,” he said. “It’s not something that an individual company can solve.”