VR Is A Loner In A Social World

At a conference about the future of virtual reality earlier this week, Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s vice president of global media distribution, joined a group of other sports-related execs who professed to be excited and a little confused, too.

There’s not much doubt watching athletes in virtual reality is a blast. But how to get that out to the masses? And what do all those sports fans want?

No doubt, Google’s new, affordable and attractive (for what it is) Daydream VR headset will help popularize VR. A steady stream of new VR product will help. “This Christmas, I really think we’re going to have customers,” said Marsilio.

Fast forward a few days... and boom. The NBA, with partner NextVR, has just announced it will stream one game a week this season in virtual reality mode. It be available only to subscribers to the NBA League Pass app, which will set you back a couple Benjamins. That’s not incidental money, in my opinion, but if you’re a fan, it kind of is.

The NBA, comparatively, has been fast breaking on virtual reality. Most recently, the league put out “Follow My Lead,” a 25-minute VR about the NBA Finals, partnering with Oculus

It gets an A for effort, no doubt, but as The Verge and others including the panelists at the NewBay Media conference pointed out, that length is as much a thing to pay attention to as the video. (Actually, on another panel, the consensus seemed to be about 20 minutes.)

In short, no one knows how long a virtual reality video should be.

That’s because there's some evidence that extended VR watching can make you sick in a way that is like motion sickness or seasickness.

And that's not the only thing.

No one seems real certain about how consumers will actually use entertainment or sports-based VR. Right now, VR pretty much entails wearing a headset to enjoy, walling you off from anybody else around. It's isolating.

But Andrew Wasserman, head of sports training for Strivr, a VR solutions firm that pushes using VR to develop athletic skills, remarked on the panel, “I don’t watch a lot of sports by myself.”

Well now, that’s true. That’s why there are sports bars on every corner.

With media increasingly driven by social experience, virtual reality is a kind of singular experience. A great one, maybe, but not a big sharing thing. You're on your own.

Eileen Campbell, CMO for Imax theaters, which is planning to open a half dozen VR venues this year, says the company is thinking hard about creating spaces in the theaters for people to walk around, but also carefully, so they won’t run into things including each other.

On another panel, Jason Farkas, vice president of content at CNN, tried to make lemonade out of that seeming viewing-environment  lemon. “We do so much distracted viewing.” he said. VR is “so immersive”  he said.

“It’s a reprieve from distraction,” agreed Ryan Horrigan, chief content officer at VR experience pioneers Felix & Paul.

Here, I have to admit, was the first time it ever dawned on me that, even before VR, streaming video sold the idea of its immersive personal qualities, and conversely, its transience. That’s both sides of the road, where on one side you ponder the countryside and on the other you’re going 90 miles an hour to quickly get the hell out of the sticks.

So it’s funny. If you’ve ever seen VR though a good player, you know it’s mind-blowing. Watching an NBA-quality slam dunk on VR might be awesome, but if you’re the only person to see it, to everybody else, that’s a little like that proverbial falling tree in the woods.

That’s why for the business to succeed, everybody’s got to hope Google’s Daydream is a big seller. VR needs a lot of people bumping around in those woods, and not getting sick, either.
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