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2016: The true test for virtual reality

NATPE president Rod Perth says VR is still in the early, experimental stages, but "the potential, while still unclear, is, at the very least, stunning."
January 11, 2016

It was almost impossible to turn around at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) without seeing or hearing something about virtual reality. But, despite more than 40 exhibitors showcasing their new products and developments in the world of 360 video and gaming (including the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, which is finally available for pre-orders), one important question still remains: will VR actually take off with consumers?

The short answer, according to industry experts, is that it looks promising — but no one really knows for sure.

“The rules of storytelling will never change. But the production process to tell stories to match the potential of virtual reality are incredibly difficult, and it’s created a new paradigm that we still don’t understand,” said Rod Perth, president of  National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE).

Perth spoke with StreamDaily following an expert panel, which included reps from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), on the feasibility of (and obstacles to) VR’s success. NAPTE and the CTA had earlier released a joint research study that surveyed 16 Hollywood-based content creators and producers who work across all genres on VR adoption.

VR, undoubtably, has made big strides in the past year, in terms of technological advancements and public availability. But Perth, who spoke with StreamDaily following the panel, said the VR is still expensive to produce and studios may not be as willing to take risks on long-form VR.

“It’s still in the very early, experimental stages,” he said.

That said, the technology is not without promise.

Some have compared the advent of virtual reality to that of 3D televisions, arguing that its too expensive and lacking quality content, but Perth said the comparison is not accurate.

“(Three-dimentional) TV tried to change a medium, which is viewing television — something we’ve all loved for 70 years — and it basically made it a worse experience and nobody cared,” said Perth. “It was a complete, absolute failure. Virtual reality is the first completely new medium that is holistically emotional, that immerses you in the experience.

“The potential of this, while it’s still unclear, is, at the very least, stunning,” he said.

The Oculus Rift is a pricey purchase — the headset alone was revealed to cost $599 and it requires a powerful computer to operate — but Perth said that won’t pose much of a threat to VR’s adoption, as the enthusiasm for a new technology will be enough to help it break into markets.

“In the early stages, the early adopters will pay, no matter what it takes to experience it,” he said. “In time, history proves that with adoption and evolution of the technology, prices plummet.”

The bigger obstacle, he said, lies in creating programming that is original and exciting enough to attract new audiences. Though 2015 saw a number of new VR initiatives and programming across all genres (such as PBS’s 360-degree documentary on the West African Ebola crisis and the creation of the New York Times‘ new VR unit), Perth said these small, often one-off initiatives aren’t enough in the broader world of programming.

“For television purposes, which is my world, no one in the creative or on the agent or the producing side of the business is focused on how they can create an expensive, untested program that replaces the television viewing experience, because there is no money in it,” he said.

Perth said it will probably take a larger, “tent-pole event” to take the medium beyond just a gaming platform — a point on which fellow panelists agreed.

He used the recent Golden Globes broadcast as an example, saying future producers might consider placing VR set-ups around the tables during the ceremony so that viewers at home can experience the technology firsthand and appreciate its uses.

“You, someone who’s experiencing the VR version of the Golden Globe, are actually a guest at George Clooney’s table at the Golden Globes, and you’re able to look around, look behind you, see people drinking, hear the sound around you, and the only thing you can’t do is reach for your glass of wine,” he said.

The executive summary of the study is available for free to CTE and NATPE members, and can be purchased by non-members for $2,000.

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