When it comes to virtual reality, you’ve probably seen plenty of headsets, whether in person, pictures, or videos explaining the (relatively) new medium. What’s less likely is that you’ve experienced VR content firsthand, taking virtual helicopter tours of cities like New York and Hong Kong, sitting courtside at an NBA game, or following the everyday life of a young Syrian refugee.
Samsung’s VR video platform, Milk VR, offers all of the above experiences to watch via the Gear VR, the company’s VR hardware, a headset that operates with Oculus technology and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 mobile phone. The video platform makes the headset more commercial — Gear VR is content driven, so it must have plenty of compelling content in order for people to want to buy it. Who would want a TV if all you could do on it was watch the same several videos over and over again?
Speaking of TV, that’s kind of how Matt Apfel, the VP of strategy and creative content at Samsung’s Media Solutions Center America, sees the platform going. “It’s ironic because VR is such a new technology, but we’re programming it in a similar way to television,” he explained. “We have four genres…and we’re trying to cultivate a daily habit for viewing and give people a reason to keep coming back.” The four genres are music (attend a concert!), sports (sit in the front row of an NBA game!), planet VR (travel to a foreign city!), and VR life, series that will help foster those TV-like viewing habits.
The content itself will mirror what’s on TV, too…but in a kind of distorted fashion. Apfel described making lifestyle series like MTV’s “Cribs,” repeatable content that can “subsidize tentpoles,” such as whatever mystery thriller David Alpert (producer of “The Walking Dead”) comes out with for the platform. In other words, unscripted content will roll out all the time, while scripted series will serve almost as a special event, with new, big ones coming out every quarter.
But before we bequeath VR with the auspicious title of “the next TV,” let’s go back to the basics. What exactly is virtual reality, and how does Gear VR work? “It’s basically a trick to your brain and your perception,” explained Nick DiCarlo, the head of VR and Gear VR at Samsung. The headset blocks out your peripheral vision, putting you in the scene you’re watching, while the picture on the screen matches the movements of your head. “As you move, a signal is sent to the software to change the image on the screen, and then light blasts out of the display onto your eyes. If that gap is fast enough, it will trick your brain,” DiCarlo explained.
“Fast enough” means a threshold of about 20 milliseconds, and smartphone processors only recently got software fast enough to accomplish this. This was very important to the development of Gear VR for Samsung, since the use of smartphones allowed them to make the product more “mainstream” via its accessibility. One way to do this, according to DiCarlo, is “by tying it to a phone that millions of people already have.” The other way involves making a user-friendly system. Samsung’s Gear VR has it control buttons on the side of the headset, with a touchpad and some buttons located around the wearer’s temple.
In spite of the controls’ intuitive nature, operating the headset takes some serious getting used to. You’re blind to your own movements inside of Gear VR (the home screen doesn’t feature your own limbs), and you have to wear a separate headset for sound, which is clunky and kind of a drag.
Though the content is invariably cool to watch, you have to accept that it’s not perfect, and, therefore, has the potential to make you feel nauseated. Samsung’s been working closely with Oculus to help solve this problem and make VR more “comfortable” for viewers.
“It’s fairly easy to put a phone in a box with some lenses and split the view [i.e., Google’s Cardboard]…but for most people, it’s not comfortable because the screen doesn’t move in alignment with your brain,” said DiCarlo. Oculus and Samsung have been collaborating on high quality VR, using a screen resolution of 2560 by 1440 pixels in an attempt to avoid the “screen door effect,” which happens when you can see the pixels in front of you over the image…like a screen door in front of the scene outside.
Even with Oculus technology and high screen resolution, the screen-door effect and other VR film issues aren’t totally gone. In some videos on the Milk VR platform, you’ll spot a point in your 360-degree view in which the video’s editors didn’t stitch together the various cameras’ footage perfectly, resulting in half a man standing in front of his full self. It’s like when you take those panorama pictures with your smartphone and end up with two or one and a half of whatever’s in the corner of one frame and entering another.
That being said, the format allows for completely unique content, the likes of which you could never accomplish in another medium. Helicopter tours of cities are kind of like Imax, but when you’re in an Imax theater, can you look down and see the body of water you’re flying over? Can you turn right and not see a fellow audience member?
The video that seemed to work best on Samsung’s Milk/Gear VR, was an eight-minute documentary called “Clouds Over Sidra,” in which a young girl from Syria talks about life her life in a refugee camp. As she narrates, the viewer gets to experience the different places, people, and activities she’s talking about. You may be surprised, while in a room filled with very old looking computers, to turn around and see two boys waving at you, goofing around for your benefit at what appears to be about a foot or so away from your face.
Currently, Milk VR boasts over 50 videos and is adding to this number every day from the company’s own content business and its partners. The question remains — who will watch this growing collection of VR videos?
Of course, everyone thinks first of gamers, the demographic most primed and likely to jump into virtual reality. “We’re pretty sure we’re getting gamers early on,” Apfel confirms, “but we’re not trying to program this only for…the hardcore tech people, the fanboys and the fangirls.” Describing gamers as a largely male demographic, Apfel continued, “I think it would be foolish to assume that only one, specific type of person or demographic would be the only type to want this content.” Hence Milk VR’s partnership with Refinery29 and its music content from female artists with big, female fan bases.
As for monetizing the platform, Apfel notes that there are currently no ads (it’s a bit early for that), but “we’re certainly not opposed to it.” However, the brands Samsung’s been working with are so enthusiastic about actually making content that the company’s not trying to “steer this straight to, ‘The CTM is $10 and here’s what your logo’s worth.’” Other than that, Samsung’s down to experiment.
The company’s ready to experiment with its hardware, too. It eventually plans to let Gear VR operate with phones other than the Galaxy Note 4, and it’s been a big hit at conventions like CES and festivals like Sundance, where VR content appeared on Main Street. It’s currently available for demo and purchase at certain Best Buys for $200. For now, Samsung must play the waiting game to see how quickly it catches on.
This article is part of VideoInk’s “VI Goes VR” special issue, which explores the current opportunity and future potential in virtual reality for the entertainment industry.
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