Virtual reality usersThe Virtual Reality Creative Summit 2016 in central London has showcased VR technology in its early stages of development and has revealed that the format has clear potential to revolutionise the way we experience events and storytelling.

The summit was organised by KFTV’s partner brands Broadcast, Screen and shots. Several of the UK’s major broadcasters delivered revealing presentations, as did companies such as Google and technology company AMD.

Consumer VR experiences centre on headsets that immerse the user in a digital environment with a 360-degree viewpoint. Content is largely short-form and relatively simplistic in nature, with providers generally prioritising the provision of a high-quality immersion experience above all.

A central concern right now is that consumers will have a bad first experience of VR and will be totally discouraged from ever trying it again.

Lower-end VR experiences can sometimes induce nausea – something that content providers need to be wary of – but it’s also clear that VR environments don’t need to be photorealistic in order to prove immersive in just a few short minutes.

In KFTV’s view, virtual reality has clear parallels with the progression of the IMAX big screen format. IMAX found its initial success with short documentaries specifically designed to showcase the immersive nature of the massive format – ten times the size of 35mm celluloid – and booming sound. 

Several years went by before blown-up screenings of major Hollywood movies became major events and began to dominate IMAX schedules around the world.

This is arguably the stage virtual reality has reached. The format remains firmly in the test phase, with manufacturers and content providers understandably focussing on developing the best technology rather than worrying too much about how best to monetise it in the long-term.  

Google VR

Sporting events and promotional campaigns that hinge on broad visuals and tense atmosphere are currently the most obvious natural fit for VR presentations. Broadcaster Sky is ideally suited to experiment as its VR division has access to all the channel’s content. Indeed, Neil Graham and Richard Nockles of Sky VR Studios confirmed at the summit that programming that’s already popular through conventional viewing has also transferred well to the more immersive environment.

Presenting scripted drama through VR is going to be much more of a challenge for content providers to work out as the specific rules of production are firmly in the experimental stage. 

Greater refinement will be needed for scripted drama than the relatively straightforward approach of setting up a 360-degree camera in a football stadium and filming the action as it unfolds.

VR gamingIn standard screen formats the director’s decisions steer what the viewer sees and ultimately impacts the meaning of the drama, whether this is overt or less perceptible to the audience.

While VR removes the final barrier between the content and the consumer, specific dramatic focal points are lost as viewers becomes more autonomous in how they choose to experience the story in the 360-degree environment.  

Some of the summit panellists noted that major manufacturers seem happy to launch headsets that are essentially ‘beta’ versions of what the technology is likely to become in a few short years, but other organisations are biding their time.

The National Theatre is working on long-form content ideas for VR but is waiting for the technology to reach the required standard.

Elsewhere, the BBC is investigating the medium’s potential for educational programming. The corporation’s research has found that audiences have strong emotional responses to history content presented through VR and footage from the BBC’s stylised VR project Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel impressed KFTV.

Panellists seemed to agree that major steps forward will be seen in VR within the next three to five years, and on the strength of the material presented in this summit, the technology could prove to be very exciting indeed.