With households under lockdown, many consumers are looking at new ways of engaging content. But can live VR content take up the mantle? Or will challenges around live VR production prevent this. Tom Ffiske investigates.

Cosmos Within Us at VR Pavillion Luxembourg. Credit Sophie Margue

Cosmos Within Us: Blurring the boundaries between VR and performance 

Source: Sophie Margue

As stadiums remain silent and cameras sit in storage, audiences are braced for a lack of fresh broadcast content. The absence is felt like a presence; the cheer of crowds or the snap of drama no longer filling weekend living rooms, and an audible silence remains.

Yet crises also push new opportunities forward, at a faster pace. Governments are using new technologies which, in ordinary times, would have taken years for adoption. The same is true for broadcasting. Companies are looking into other ways to deliver their live content, from National Theatreplays delivered via live YouTube broadcasts or the launch of Disney+. For others, it means looking into live VR broadcasts as a good option for providing content.

While immersive tech has been around since the 1980s, Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in the mid-2010s injected vibrancy in the nascent industry. Businesses saw potential too. Imagine sitting in a living room, donning a VR headset, and watching a live game as though sitting in a stadium, or a play. The technology takes a step beyond watching broadcasts on a flat 2D screen, and brings people into an audience. On paper, the potential is there. While there are barriers from costs to support, industry professionals are confident that the technology will rapidly progress.

Taking a step back
By now the broadcast industry is well-aware of VR’s benefits and quirks. Scores of VR experiences offering small, bite-sized activities elevate the viewing experience, tugging a visceral reaction from watchers. A kit unveiling of UK-based Reading Football Clubfeatured a VR experience where users felt like they were sat in the club’s home stadium. There’s value in feeling part of a crowd (and a nearby bathroom without a queue). But the technology at the time was basic; often reduced down to a Samsung Gear headset with blurred imagery.

The first live VR broadcast was not sophisticated. Created by NextVR in 2015, it was a simple 180-degree production of a beach, using an 8mbps connection streamed to a Galaxy Note 4. A technological barrier existed for a time.

But it outlined the firm’s ambitions; after pushing pre-recorded Coldplay concerts and NBA games, NextVR wanted to provide live VR content for anyone to watch. Five years later, NextVR is consistently regarded as one of the best media applications on the Oculus platform, delivering live games from the NBA. The deal seems to be successful, as NextVR and the NBA extended their agreement in late 2019.

Live broadcasts go beyond sports as well. On December 2018, MelodyVR, a production company, announced their own first live VR broadcast - this time focusing on music. The company streamed Liam Payne’s performance from a secret location, and fans watched the former One Direction member via the MelodyVR app. MelodyVR declined to comment for this article, though it is clear the company is focusing on live musical content in the future.

Theatrical productions, musical shows, and sports events are the most obvious ways to use live VR broadcasts. All of them have monetisable options with seasonal or single tickets per showing, as an additional revenue option for people who cannot attend. The overwhelming feedback in all cases is the feeling of presence; sitting on the seats looking up, as part of the experience. The technology has reached the point where companies can deliver high-fidelity broadcasts – and the market has responded with content that uses the capabilities.

Looking at esports
Perhaps the most exciting area is esports, with a lot of innovation in the area. Weavr, an immersive platform, has been streaming sports and esports since last year assisting the European Sports League (ESL). Viewers can watch a game of Dota 2, with a war table in front of them that shows heroes prowling across the map, and a massive screen above that showed the gameplay. By rifling through the options, they can see the stats of who killed the most minions and other stats from the game. The technology used a blend of data, streaming, and commentary in conjunction with one another for a powerful effect.


Weavr: An immersive platform to experience esports

Source: Graeme Duncan, ESL UK

‘Audience reception has been great,’ said Jonathan Newth, CEO of Focal Point VR. Weavr operates as a consortium where companies handle different parts, and Focal Point VR is responsible for the immersive live stream video broadcast. ‘In addition to high resolution 360 cameras position in the stadium to create the remote auditorium view we placed VR cameras directly behind the teams, providing a privileged viewpoint which could only be experienced using in VR; this viewpoint was really liked by esports fans. A number of fans cited this viewpoint alone as a good enough reason to go out and buy a VR headset.’

The focus on esports makes sense. Already technologically literate, an esports audience can get a lot from watching games like Dota 2, with a stream of data to peruse and analyse. As a platform, Weavr is robust for all sorts of uses.

All about the money
Still, the technology needs some progression. VR cameras are expensive, shooting high-fidelity shots in pixel-counts that can make most computers buckle. Then the feed needs to go through a server that processes the raw content, and delivers it in the right format to people donning the headsets. Beyond hardware is the specialist personnel costs. The niche talent needed to run VR broadcasts flawlessly takes a team of people. Such broadcasts need specialists, with a high price tag.

Tupac Headshot.

Tupac Martir: Founder at Satore Studio

Another high cost is informing teams and executives the benefit of VR. Tupac Martir, Founder at Satore Studio, said that it’s necessary to frame it as a ‘storytelling’ tool to highlight its perks, which takes time. ‘By making it useful as a storytelling technique, it is important to understand why it is in the story and not just because we could, but rather because we needed it.’

Yet benefits exist too. With the extensive pre-production and shooting, teams save costs with limited post-production required. ‘You save so much in post, that it balances out or even makes it cheaper,’ said Martir.

The high costs of production and technology, combined with its restricted reach, makes it a difficult proposition for some companies. Knowing this, production companies respond with the power and persuasion that VR broadcasts can deliver for the few that would use it. If a fewer number of people that use VR fork out the cash, then the money balances out.

Immersive broadcasts in the future
Though the technology is ready to handle massive live events, immersive broadcasts will not become mainstream over the next few years. Not everyone is willing to buy a VR headset to watch content, when they already have a television in their homes that has multiple uses beyond watching live events. Cheaper hardware will raise sales. Yet the value of VR is that, for the select few with the capabilities, they can watch a live show with greater immersion than anyone sitting at home, and are willing to pay for the access.

The next step for many companies is social immersion; integrating friends and family in the same way they commune around a TV over a weekend. VR is often seen as an isolating, solitary experience,’ said Newth, ‘but we see it having the potential to be the opposite. Bringing friends and communities into the experience, being able to see what they see remotely, talk (using voice over IP) and share experiences is a core part of the Weavr VR touchpoint within the platform.’ In short, the technology should integrate social elements for success.

Social bonding is a vital part of any live performance. Any experience increases in impact if shared with others, whether it is at the location or sitting at home. VR means we reach a point where we can sit with friends from miles away, bonding over shared experiences.. While stadiums stay silent, living rooms may roar.