While there is considerable interest in virtual reality (VR) today, and the experience can be incredible, the technology also comes with several challenges. Still, pioneers are experimenting with it and trying to develop new, immersive experiences for early adopters around the world.
PCCW Global is the global communications division of Hong Kong incumbent PCCW Ltd. (NYSE: PCW; Hong Kong: 0008) It recently covered the Hong Kong Sevens Rugby tournament, Hong Kong's premier annual sporting event, in 360-degree (360D) video. It was the first time in Asia that any major international event had been distributed in 360D, according to the company.
The event was conducted along with a team of partners including PCCW-owned Hong Kong broadcaster Now TV, Ideal Systems (a broadcast and VR systems integrator) and Nokia, which provided its OZO 360D cameras. (See PCCW's Berriman Talks Live 360-Degree Video.)
The entire project was the brainchild of PCCW Global's eSports and VR expert, Alex Berriman. Telco Transformation asked him to describe his experience and share what he learned with us.
Telco Transformation: What advice would you offer someone who wanted to offer 360D coverage of an event?
Alex Berriman: Definitely [have] more lead time. This was an ambitious project with a lot of moving parts. One thing I would definitely say move quickly on is getting the app approved. You need to get it approved for the HTC Vive and Oculus. We left it too late and only got approval one day before the start of the tournament. That left Now TV no time to market the 360D coverage. They didn't want to market it unless they were absolutely sure it would work. So definitely I would say get approval sooner.
I would also say manage expectations. When we said we would be capturing in 4K everyone assumed the picture would look absolutely fantastic. They got very excited about the picture quality. But for a 360D view means you see only a small window at a time, it's zoomed-in and it's highly compressed. So it's more like HD. That was a concern for Now TV -- they wanted to know if it would help their brand perception, or potentially even hurt it.
Camera placement is another thing you have to re-think. VR allows you views you can't do with a 2D camera. The 360D view and experience is different from traditional television, so you have to re-think the experience, and how you set up cameras. Typically, sporting events are filmed from one side, but with 360D, you could be better off being right in the middle of the action. For example, when the players run on to the pitch you could get a view from the middle of the pitch, see the view from a player's perspective. But rules didn't allow us to go anywhere there, anywhere near the player -- the league doesn't want to do anything that might disrupt their game. But if we'd asked earlier, we might have been able to get permission.
TT: How do you see this space evolving?
AB: VR and 360-degree video give more sports -- that maybe aren't that popular -- a chance to shine. Traditional sports coverage is limited by stadium size, type of action. But 360D can change that. If you look at a sport like horse racing, for example. You could have a 360D camera right on the finish line. That sport is all about seeing your horse win -- you can have a much better user experience with VR.
I don't think VR will replace TV but it can offer a different experience. But I also don't think you can just have a TV director do it -- you need a VR-specific director, cast and crew with a 360D mindset and thinking and ability.
For example, I recently saw a video produced about UK rugby. But rather than do it in a traditional way, it was done from the point of view of a new recruit, who is just joining the team. So you see the coach talking to "you," as a new recruit, and showing you around the facilities. It's a much more interactive experience. He introduces you to the team, says something like, you know, "Boys, we have a new recruit here. Say hello, help out the new rookie"… that sort of thing. The experience is very different.
TT: Are you planning to move forward with more events of this kind?
AB: Yes, we are looking at it. I should say PCCW Global doesn't do the actual production of the event. We distribute it. For the production component we worked with Ideal Systems -- they do TV broadcasts and build TV studios. We are inking a partnership with them, to go to market for 360D coverage of sports and other events. We can offer a full live VR solution.
We're looking at some events right now in Asia, but we're taking a global approach -- PCCW Global has 60 offices worldwide, we offer connectivity worldwide.
TT: What do you see as the major constraints?
AB:The revenues are still challenging. The industry still needs to figure out how to monetize this in a big way. That could take a while. It's expensive -- the cameras, the bandwidth. Also there are no content rights fees [model that has been resolved] yet.
TT: What about productive VR -- the ability to use VR in enterprises or organizations for productivity?
AB: There's a big difference there. VR can grow because it can used by many industries -- the housing industry, medical training, military etc.
Education is a good example. There have been successful efforts using VR in education. Memory and retention from studying via a textbook is lower than if that's done in an immersive 360D method. VR is also better than having a teacher explain the same information to a student. The percentage of students who remember what they learned is highest when VR is used.
TT: Where do you see the role of an operator in this sector?
AB: If content is pre-recorded and delivered via an app, then I think the role for an operator is limited. But maybe if you merge the OTT and VR platforms and link them with a CDN and offer that combined set to customers -- [that would] help them publish material in a streamlined way.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation