Virtual Reality TV: Live via a Headset Near You

Tech at a Turning Point Toward a Tipping Point

Several events coincided this week in what many have been calling the tipping point for virtual reality TV.

Samsung’s virtual reality headset, the Gear VR, goes on sale in retail outlets tomorrow for the relatively modest price of $199. That headset is powered by technology developed by Oculus, the VR company acquired last year by Facebook (which has its own headset, the Oculus Rift).

Both the headsets and the experiences they enable – Samsung’s Gear VR enables live and on-demand streaming of VR video – were making news this week at Facebook’s F8 2015 developer conference. With the availability of affordable – and stylish, compared to previous implementations of VR headgear – headsets, enhanced VR TV content will start to follow.

It was in that context that Fox Sports and NextVR, which specializes in capturing and delivering live broadcast-quality VR content, announced they completed a live VR broadcast production test during two NASCAR series races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last weekend (March 21-22).

Using NextVR’s technology, Fox Sports live-streamed an immersive view of the action that put Samsung headset-wearing execs on the pit crew wall and on the track, live during both races.

“We’re all sitting there in the production trailer outside the track, wearing these Samsung headsets, and you literally feel like you’re behind the wall on the pits,” said Mike Davies, senior vice president of field operations for Fox Sports. “It was a somewhat surreal experience.”

Of course, virtual reality technology has had a number of expected tipping points over the last 20 to 25 years. Like AI and 3D, VR is a sexy technology that seems to make news from time to time and then subside from the headlines.

But, this week anyway, virtual reality TV seems to be at least at a turning point toward a tipping point.

“You have to be careful about saying this is a tipping point,” Davies said, drawing a comparison to 3D production and channels and how that technology appeared to be on the verge of taking over TV a few years ago.

The current enthusiasm for virtual reality TV should be tempered by the 3D TV experience, he suggested, as the two share similar underlying technologies and user experiences (both requiring users to wear special gear). All that said, VR TV is much less taxing from the production perspective than 3D TV.

“There isn’t a lot of production to do with VR,” Davies said. “You can do what we did in the NASCAR test by throwing down a VR rig anywhere, and you’re done, whereas in 3D production, here comes the other truck and the extra crew and all the gear, and it’s costly. So it’s a lot easier to take VR production out in the field in terms of the financial commitment you need to make.”

For the NASCAR test, Fox Sports and NextVR set up two VR cameras, one on the pit wall and one between the track and the pits, that captured 180-degree and 360-degree views of the action. The live VR video streamed to the Samsung Gear VR headsets via a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone app.

The VR capture frame rate in the test matched Fox Sports’s broadcast-standard 60 frames per second at 720p, which delivered a smooth viewing experience without shuttering. On the production side, the test will help Fox Sports “to determine what’s compelling,” in terms of camera placement and angles, Davies said. “Now we have a baseline for what it looks like, and we can make better decisions about where stuff goes next time.”

Davies declined to provide a timeline for when that “next time” could be, and while acknowledging plans were in the works for either more tests or possible programming, did not provide specifics. He signaled, however, that Fox Sports will continue to keep its eye on the VR TV ball.

“Being a production guy, I tend to see these enhancements with a grain of salt, but the experience was surprisingly good,” Davies said. “Everything is a work in progress. Virtual reality TV as such is relatively young, but one can see the possibilities of the technology and frankly, from what we saw, they’re not too far off.”

For example, as the VR camera rigs get smaller, the frame rates get higher and the compression rates get faster, a programmer could put the VR user in the driver’s seat with live dash-mounted VR rigs.

“It would be really cool to put a VR rig in the car that can capture and deliver that experience live,” he said. “That would be the holy grail of motor sports.”