CES Sees Big VR Push

Hardware companies still hoping content catches up to the technology

Two days before the Consumer Electronics Show floor opened to everyone, Chad Kresser, product marketing manager for hardware company Lenovo, surveyed the early virtual reality offerings among companies attending the CES Unveiled preview event in Las Vegas.

There were plenty of new headsets, such as the new sub-$400 Lenovo model for Windows devices the company introduced. There were plenty of cameras as well, and even some peripherals for VR enthusiasts.

But with all the hardware being showcased, Kresser wondered aloud something that’s more than important to virtual reality’s long-term success: Will the content be there to support all this new technology?

“I think we need scale on the content side to meet the hardware,” he said. “More people are getting into the tech side of this, because it is cool, but it can’t just be gaming that [pushed] virtual reality.”

Jeremy Miller, sales associate with VR hardware company Vuze, wondered much the same thing. His company debuted an $800 VR camera geared toward helping consumers create their own content. The camera makes a lot of sense—there’s not exactly a mountain of professional VR experiences available just yet, he said.

“There’s a lot of cameras coming out this year, and VR is definitely on its way up,” Miller said. “If more content comes with the hardware, the space will blow up.”

Rebecca Howard, senior VP of emerging platforms and partnerships for Discovery Networks—which launched its own virtual reality network, Discovery VR, in 2016—said during a CES panel Jan. 4 that content creators are aware of the potential of VR (especially among brand managers) and they’re still feeling their way in a nascent industry. And David Anderman, chief business officer for Jaunt, which creates cinematic virtual reality experiences, said the potential of VR, and using it to put consumers in real-world environments, is still being felt out.

“I’m not going to climb [Yosemite’s] Half Dome, but with VR I can feel like I have,” he said.

CONTENT IS COMING…SLOWLY

As CES week began unfolding, several VR content announcements came out from content companies.

20th Century Fox announced it was partnering with RSA Films and Technicolor-owned MPC VR to produce a VR experience for the upcoming sci-fi film Alien: Covenant, with director Ridley Scott serving as executive producer of the experience.

It will be the studio’s third virtual reality endeavor, following a VR treatment for Wild in 2015, and Fox Innovation Lab’s first commercial VR endeavor, The Martian VR Experience, which debuted at the 2016 CES.

“The VR experience for Alien: Covenant is a dread-inducing journey into the depths of the Alien universe,” a studio statement read. “Viewers will discover the true meaning of terror as they navigate through horrifying alien environments and a story where every decision could mean the difference between life and death.”

Additionally, at a pre-CES event the night of Jan. 4, the studio unveiled a surprise fourth VR experience, this one for the next installment of the Planet of the Apes franchise. An early version of the endeavor puts users in the body of an ape, standing around a fire in the woods, communicating with another ape holding an assault rifle.

Fox has yet to announce when either VR experience will be available to consumers.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 5 at CES, Nokia, which produces the high-end, professional grade Ozo VR camera, announced a partnership with Chinese digital entertainment platform Youku, to help create and distribute VR content on Youku’s apps and online platform.

The goal there is to help Youku content creators pitch VR experiences to the more than 500 million monthly active users on its online video platform (which garners more than a billion daily video views).

“China is one of the most progressive VR markets in the world with an enormous and growing appetite for high-quality virtual reality experiences,” said Paul Melin, VP of digital media at Nokia Technologies, in a statement. “Our collaboration with Youku enables millions more people to enjoy incredibly immersive video and audio VR content through a well-known and trusted platform.”

Youku will integrate the Ozo Camera, software suite, Ozo Live platform and player software development kit for the creation and distribution of VR content, covering film, TV, news and documentaries. The content will be made available on the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, HTC Vive and Google VR for Android and iOS.

“Virtual reality has become a creative and compelling medium for art, cinema, education, gaming, travel and a growing number of experiences,” said Jerry Li, GM of Alibaba Home Entertainment Business. “Youku continually strives to deliver the best content available anywhere, and our collaboration with Nokia allows us to make professional-quality VR available to our audiences.”

Virtual reality broadcasting platform Next VR, which has helped broadcasters such as Fox Sports deliver live events in VR, announced it was not only expanding its app to the Google Daydream mobile VR platform, it was also launching an NBA on-demand VR service, with both game replays and highlights in VR. The service—available for both the Samsung Gear and Daydream—includes “Best Plays” and “Best Dunks” sections, and will be available internationally. Next VR has already been delivering one live NBA game a week in VR, thanks to a multiyear partnership with the league.

“Through platform and content expansion, Next VR will provide more fans around the globe with breakthrough and immersive experiences through premium events in virtual reality they may never have the opportunity to attend in person,” the company said in a statement.

Also at CES, visual effects and production company Digital Domain showed off its first cinematic VR series, Monkey King, based off a mythological Chinese character. The company worked with the HTC Vive and Qualcomm Technologies to produce the series, and aims to release it later this year.

“HTC Vive and Qualcomm Technologies are providing consumers with powerful technologies for experiencing the full potential of virtual reality,” said Digital Domain CEO Daniel Seah. “CES attendees using Vive headsets and headsets powered by Snapdragon processors can enjoy VR experiences that are more responsive and immersive than was ever before possible.”

Raymond Pao, VP of VR for HTC, added: “The renowned artists at Digital Domain bring imagination to life in stunning detail, and high-quality content like the Monkey King experience will inspire consumers to make VR entertainment a part of their everyday lives. We believe that computer-generated experiences like Monkey King will help usher the entertainment industry into a new era, bringing immersive visual experiences to captivated audiences.”

And for its part, HTC announced nearly a dozen VR entertainment experiences for CES attendees to enjoy, ranging from the game Arcade Saga, to the more cinematic experience Star Trek Bridge Crew, which puts multiple VR users into the shoes of starship officers.

“In the past nine months, we’ve made VR readily accessible to consumers and enterprise customers across the globe, and we’re carrying incredible momentum into 2017,” said Daniel O’Brien, VP of VR for HTC. “The VR ecosystem continues to grow and at CES 2017, we will showcase the breadth of VR experiences and accessories that will form the future of VR.”

VR HARDWARE AT CES

Along with the Lenovo and Vuze announcements, several companies made early debuts of virtual reality hardware at CES.

Lucid VR, which touts its early development of 3D VR hardware, showed off its LucidCam, a 4K VR camera that handles underwater and live-streaming VR, allowing users to create and broadcast VR content from a first-person perspective. The camera and its software development kit are expected to ship during the second quarter.

“We are on a mission to make true virtual reality in 3D as easy to create as a click of a button so people can produce high-quality immersive experiences the way they see them. With our 3D technology, users can create VR content fast and iterate quickly, seeing their 3D content instantly,” said Han Jin, cofounder and CEO of Lucid VR. “Pair your LucidCam through WiFi with your phone to see how it looks in 3D, make the appropriate adjustments and then immediately reshoot if you need to.”

The camera captures video at 45 frames per second and features 32 GB of storage. Its waterproof casing allows for filming underwater at up to 36 feet.

Meanwhile, virtual reality studio First Contact Entertainment partnered with peripheral company VRsenal to produce a VR gun peripheral and haptic vest for the first-person VR game ROM: Extraction.

“New VR peripherals are a critical component to delivering an immersive VR experience and building out the ever-growing Vive ecosystem,” said HTC’s O’Brien. “We built Vive to deliver the most immersive, room-scale VR experience on the market today. Companies like First Contact and VRsenal help us meet this vision and we’re excited to see what the VR-15 rifle offers to the VR experience.”

VR COLLABORATIONS ANNOUNCED

Additionally at CES, the international VR/AR Association (VRARA) unveiled a new, searchable database of companies involved in the virtual reality space with the goal of making it easier to connect with new partners.

“The [virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality] ecosystem is growing at an unprecedented pace, faster than anything we have seen in the mobile ecosystem,” said VRARA executive director Kris Kolo, in a statement. “There are now thousands of companies offering VR- or AR-related services and it will be impossible to find the best partner with a simple Google search or by going to events. The directory fills this need and will connect organizations in more efficient and effective ways by ‘matchmaking’ on a global scale.”

The database allows for company searches by categories, company names and locations, however it’s only accessible to the 100-plus members of VRARA.

And a new Virtual Reality Industry Forum (VRIF) launched at CES, with nearly 30 companies signing on to help boost wider adoption of VR services. The nonprofit group has a simple purpose: “To further the widespread availability of high-quality audiovisual VR experiences, for the benefit of consumers.”

“We hope to ensure that the VR industry avoids the fragmentation of standards and formats that has plagued audio-visual media in the past,” said David Price, VP of business development at Ericsson, one of the founding member companies. “We expect that many of those involved in the original informal discussions will join VRIF shortly.”

Chris Johns, chief engineer of broadcast strategy for Sky, added: “VRIF will seek to establish best practices to ensure a high-quality user experience, and we believe this is crucial for the market to take off. We all expect that 2017 will be the year when intense consumer interest in VR spurs a quantum leap in the user experience.”

The founding member companies include Akamai, Arris, Baylor University, CableLabs, Cinova Media, Dolby, DTG, DTS, EBU, Ericsson, Fraunhofer, Harmonic, Huawei, Intel, Irdeto, Ittiam, MovieLabs, NAB PILOT, Orah, Qualcomm, Sky, Sony Pictures, Technicolor, TNO, Vantrix, Verizon and Viaccess-Orca.

Advancing standards for virtual reality, developing guidelines for best practices and finding a consensus for common technical specs for the end-to-end delivery of VR ecosystem will be the group’s main goals.