RTS VR event gets real

Sky VR booth at RTS virtual reality discussion at Hospital Club
Neal Romanek
November 2nd 2016 at 10:39AM : By Neal Romanek

The Royal Television Society held a conference on the future of virtual reality. It's seems likely that VR is here to stay, but what is it for?

Last night, the Royal Television Society held an event at London's Hospital Club to discuss the state of VR (including augmented reality, 360° imagery and all manner of immersive content). The discussion was accompanied by a vendor exhibition.

A discussion panel, (pictured below) moderated by media analyst Kate Bulkley, featured Ken Blakeslee, conference chair for the VR & AR World trade show, Neil Graham, executive producer for Sky VR and Sky Movies, Spencer Kelly, presenter of BBC Click and Tamzin Taylor, the head of Google's head of new business development, Android Apps and Games, for EMEA. 

RTS VR panel

Companies showing at the event's VR exhibition were: 360events, AVR Centre, Coventry University, Homido, Inception, freelance producer Jane Gauntlett, Mativision, Matterport, Myndplay, Nexus, Octagon and cards Sky.

The atmosphere in the room was, as is often the case at VR events, enthusiastic. The media industries may not know what to do with VR, but it's excited about the possibilities (even if it doesn't know what those possibilities are...yet). 

Some have asserted that it's gaming that is going to be the killer app for VR, and that it's use in the mainstream will be confined to niche audiences. Ken Blakeslee of VR & AR World disagrees. He said that we owed a great debt to the games industry for mainstreaming VR and 360° content and developing the technology, but now it's time for other industries to use that technology for the creation of a variety of content types. He also suggested replacing the term "virtual reality" with "time shifted" reality, which he felt was a more apt description of what tghe content really represented.

Blakeslee also said that discernment was key to progress: "Embrace the technology, but don't assume it's right for everything. I see a red flag when a tech company starts talking about how cool the technology is. I always ask, 'What is the value proposition'?" 

Bulkley asked the panellists how the recent interest in VR was different from the ill-fated push for 3D a few years ago.

Neil Graham, exec producer for Sky VR, whose company has had a long trial with 3D, said the VR video was a completely new experience - not just a stereoscopic version of already existing content. It also existed within and required a completely different ecosystem of production and distribution. 

Google's Tamzin Taylor noted that the replacement cycle is much faster than it was for 3D. VR has evolved rapidly and will continue to evolve at a much more rapid pace than 3DTV could have ever hoped to. Google Cardboard allows for easy viewing of stereoscopic VR on a smartphone, and VR delivery through streaming and apps is much more accessible and flexible than a broadcast or cinema distribution chain. What has allowed VR to boom is the ease with which it can now be viewed and distributed.

Google is betting on continued growth in the VR sector with the release of its Daydream VR headset later this month. "We put out tools that'll make it easy for creatores to create content," said Taylor. The lightweight Daydream is a more sophisticated, comfortable smart-phone holder than the Google Cardboard with a handheld controller and will sell for €69. But Google is putting its emphasis on a being a pipeline for VR content as well with VR capture via its Jump technology and with easy distribution to its YouTube platform or Google Play store. Daydream, however, is entirely Android centric, which means if you have an iPhone or other non-Android device, you're out of luck. 

BBC's Spencer Kelly had perhaps the most practical VR experience of anyone on the panel. Kelly was host of tech and gadget show BBC Click. This past March, the show featured an episode, BBC Click 360, billed as the "World's First Entirely 360 TV Episode"

Kelly gained some useful production insights in producing the show. First, he said, choosing a great location was key - 360 video works best with spectacle at the heart of it. BBC Click 360 featured a venture up the side of a glacier, a look inside the CERN's Large Hadron Collider, and a VR look at a magic trick. He also said not to be afraid of letting scenes run - VR audiences want time to experience a scene without being constant editorial interruptions.

Questions from the delegates included the inevitable: "Will VR become a mainstream entertainment or will it always remain a niche curiosity?" Responses from the panel varied. Sky's Neil Graham was convinced the demand and quality of VR content was only going to grow - and Sky is betting money on that outlook - but BBC Click's Kelly, despite the excellent employment of it on his Click 360 episode, said that he thought VR and 360 video was unlikely to take a prominent place outside of gaming. But it was agreed by all that until we can get VR creation tools into the hands of artists and filmmakers - lots of them - and get their work critiqued by the public, we won't know for sure.