The National Football League (NFL) announced yesterday that it will be producing a nine-part series of virtual reality shows with Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), providing viewers with a 360-degree view of the NFL from the point of view of players, coaches, executives, cheerleaders and fans. It is aimed at Google's mobile VR product, Daydream.
Struggling with a surprising 13.4% TV ratings slump this year, the league is looking to leverage "an emerging platform that enables content experiences with a truly unique vantage point that brings fans closer to the game," according to Vishal Shah, senior vice president of digital media for the NFL. (See Is Sports Programming Losing Its Edge?)
The series is currently in production, and is using Jump, Google's 360-degree camera and capture system. It will include coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles as they prepare for an upcoming game, Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, Green Bay fans and the San Diego Chargers organization.
The NFL is not the first major sports league to embrace VR -- the National Basketball Association (NBA) offered the opening game of the 2015-2016 season on VR (in partnership with Turner and NextVR) last fall and has extended that to streaming one game every week of the season in VR.
Quite apart from the world of sports, VR is having an impact in other areas as well. According to a recent study from Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT), more than two out of every three media executives surveyed felt that VR had "arrived." Close to half (45%) felt it was "here to stay", 14% felt it would be a "market leader" and just under 8% felt it represented the "future of all video." (See Two-Thirds of Media Executives Accept Virtual Reality Has Arrived – Level 3 Study.)
A highly touted VR thriller, Invisible, was recently released by Samsung Corp. , Jaunt, Conde Nast Entertainment and 30 Ninjas, and sponsored by Lexus. The first season (five episodes of six minutes each) is being offered free to viewers. Producers accept that it was a learning process, but believe that they have found the right balance between offering an engaging linear narrative while maximizing the use of the immersive medium. This has been a major challenge for the creative video community in the broadest sense: how to balance the more gaming-oriented "true" VR experience with the most effective way to tell a story from a filmmaker's perspective, while using 360-degree video.
It's worth noting here that while 360-degree video and VR are used interchangeably, they are not quite the same thing. Differences are mostly to do with the control the producer has over the experience. With 360-degree video you get a 360-degree view, but it's based on where the producer puts the camera, and the timeline and narrative the filmmaker decides on. Also, it doesn't require a headset; it can be viewed on mobile or desktop devices. Here's a handy infographic that provides more detail.
Equally important, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday that the company would be pursuing VR/360-degree video as an important part of its strategy moving forward. While the emphasis on the earnings call was mostly on the social networks push towards video on all its social platforms, 360-degree video was an important part of the company's plans for "emerging interactive video", along with adding video to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and developing Instagram Stories. (See Facebook Puts 'Video First' and Social Video Could Be the Next Great Challenge for Network Operators.)
According to Zuckerberg, more typical on-demand video is the vast majority of video that is both shared and consumed on Facebook , but live video is the future. He sees this next generation of video driving interactions across a range of use cases, "whether it's public figures holding a town hall with hundreds of thousands of people, or just ten people hanging out with friends." Zuckerberg asserts that live video will be "a more social experience."
Facebook Live usage has quadrupled in the past six months, and Instagram Stories, launched in August, is up to more than 100 million daily active users.
Focused on advertising revenue, Facebook is also developing a productive video strategy, targeting its 360-degree video capabilities for businesses. In the last year, just 250,000 360-degree videos have been uploaded to Facebook -- not a very large number, it must be said. But the company believes that large brands are seeing opportunities here for customer interaction.
And the New York Times has just launched a new service called "The Daily 360." Its reporters around the world have been given Samsung Gear 360-degree cameras and asked to provide VR content. Coverage will include 360-degree footage of the fighting in Yemen and fighting over the US presidential election.
It seems clear that there is significant enthusiasm and belief in virtual reality as an important form of video in the future. The variety of companies involved, and the different genres of content generated, are suggestive of broad industry interest. But at this point, many of these initiatives are somewhat experimental -– initial toe-dipping exercises, to see if there really is demand.
Obviously, should VR take off, no one wants to be left behind. So there's reason to get involved and better understand viewer behavior with this new technology. There's also considerable pressure to cater to younger audiences who are getting more difficult to reach via traditional media channels. In addition, there's a more subtle need for media companies to be seen as early adopters of technology, well positioned for future growth -- by the industry, but more importantly, by analysts and investors.
I do believe this sizable slate of announcements are important, and they do demonstrate momentum for the technology. But there are a lot of questions still to be answered, and while the prognosis for VR is generally very positive, proceeding cautiously is probably advisable at this stage.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation