VR 20/20: Content Players Debate Social Factor, Pricing, Brand Opportunity

Panelists see technology intensifying viewers’ connection with content
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NEW YORK — A quartet of virtual-reality specialists from across the content spectrum debated several core elements of VR, from the social aspect (or lack thereof) to branded content opportunities to pricing in a vigorous, wide-ranging panel session.

Titled “Film, TV, OTT and VR: Where Content & Technology Intersect,” the session came during the morning portion of VR 20/20, the kickoff conference during NYC Television & Video Week, presented by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable. (Sister NewBay Media titles TWICE, TV Technology and VideoEdge also presented the VR event.)

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“With gaming, you have more of an installed base,” noted moderator Rich Greenfield, managing director and media and technology analyst at BTIG. “With entertainment, we’re building the base. How do you not kind of scare people away with the cost of content?”

Ryan Horrigan, chief content officer at VR studio Felix & Paul, said his company is “advising our partners to price it at a premium amount. We are training users that this content is expensive to make and these are rich experiences that deserve to be paid for.”

Transactional video-on-demand, he added, will likely remain the default option, rather than subscription VOD. “If you were to tell me that for one or two dollars, I could download a 20-minute VR episode that was unlike anything I’ve seen in film and television. If it maybe has a Hollywood filmmaker involved and some interesting production value, and my credit card was already hooked up to the Google Play store or the Oculus headset and all I have to do is hit ‘buy,’ just like in the App Store, you don’t really think about it. Once it gets to four or five dollars, you start to think about it.”

Aaron Luber, who leads VR/Cardboard partnerships for Google, pointed to “co-presence” as one of the key attributes of VR content that could help it scale. “You’re with VR, experiencing it with other people. We should try it if we can. There are some companies trying to do this … When you look at communication now and things like FaceTime, it just makes sense.”

Horrigan, who jumped to Felix & Paul earlier this year from Hollywood production company New Regency, said VR technology will be “social only when it needs to be.” He cited the experience of going to a movie with his wife.

“We’ll talk in the car on the way to the theatre but once the movie starts, I’m not talking to her,” he said. “I am at home when we watch Netflix.”

With so much social interaction through the day, both online and off, “I view VR as a respite,” Horrigan said.

Jason Farkas, vice president of premium content video for CNN, agreed. “We spend so much time doing distracted viewing — a little bit on this screen, a little bit over here on that screen. Trying to have a conversation with someone in person and your phone is going off. So there’s a lot of partial attention span paid to all these different screens.  …

“VR is kind of nice because it’s a bit of an isolation chamber,” he said. “You do focus on the story because it’s all around you. It feels a little bit more pure.”

The intensity of VR is one reason brands have climbed aboard, Greenfield noted, citing Volvo’s recent campaign for the SC90.

“There’s no better way for a brand to show people what it is they’re selling,” said Luber, noting that branded content has been one of the “surprises” of the Cardboard rollout.

Greenfield also queried the panelists about Apple’s strategy in the VR landscape.

“When is Apple going to jump into the game?” Eileen Campbell, chief marketing officer of IMAX, asked. The company may be pondering acquisitions in the space or just sitting “on the sidelines letting us fail first.” Farkas ventured that the company, judging by CEO Tim Cook’s recent comments, “may skip VR and go straight to” augmented reality, or AR.

AR offers another realm for companies to explore, panelists agreed. Campbell said AR offers clear-cut opportunities in medicine or real estate or retailing. One successful example, she hypothesized: “I go to Ikea and I get the AR version of how to build the damn thing.”

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