It is still early days for virtual reality (VR). Awareness is rising as headsets from various makers have gone on sale over the last 6 months, piquing industry interest. VR is more than an incremental experience such as 3-D, but a step-change in media production and delivery.

VR is the next platform; the rudiments of VR are just starting to take shape. In terms of personal computing, development could be much quicker; however, thanks to VR's links to the mobile sector, benefiting from global scale. The market, the standard for technologies, the content, and monetization are going to mature at a rate far faster than any medium seen before, and in big part because it is all built on the back of the mobile supply chain.

VR is leveraging everything that took smartphones to over a billion devices today. Some news and entertainment producers are also starting to experiment with short-form VR video, although the technology is more commonly used in video games so far. VR is a medium in its infancy, however, where companies need to develop a new ecosystem alongside demand. Content is the essential part of this technology, delivering fantastic experiences to end users as efficiently as possible. Companies providing this technology make sure that devices and cameras are made available for content partners.

Deloitte Global predicts that VR will have its first billion dollar by end of this year, with about USD 700 million in hardware sales, and the remainder from content. Virtual reality hardware offers visual (and sometimes audio) immersion via a head-mounted display that shows a stereo image in 3-D. Sensors in the headset track the user's movements and change the user's view accordingly. The sound track adjusts accordingly, enhancing the perception of being elsewhere. All other things being equal, the higher the screen resolution, and the faster the screen refresh, the more convincing is the simulation.

VR content can be created using CGI (computer-generated images) or filmed using special clusters of cameras that collectively capture a 360-degree field of view. In playback, the user is shown different aspects of the images captured, depending on where he or she is looking. As with many technologies, the notion of VR is decades old, but its commercial realization has been subject to the sometimes slow pace of technological progress. Optimal VR experiences require very-high-resolution screens, ideally over 500 dots per inch, which have only recently become commercially available, a wide field of view and high refresh rates, ideally at least 75 frames per second, requiring powerful processors. It is only recently that screen and processor technology have improved in terms of price and performance such that VR is now commercially viable, albeit still at high price points for the full featured solution.

First Generation of VR Broadcasts

VR is still a nascent technology. Filming and broadcasting live events in VR comes with all sorts of benefits and challenges not found in traditional filming.

With traditional broadcasts, studios set up cameras throughout a studio or stadium with ability to rotate and zoom in with ease, and the studio editor cuts between different feeds that best represent the current action. By contrast, a VR camera is meant to effortlessly capture the entire surrounding action close up and allow the user to choose where to focus.

Traditional television is already hemorrhaging young, cord-cutting viewers. By contrast, 97 million people will spend USD 14.5 billion on VR hardware and content by 2020. Networks and cable companies fully intend to recoup their investments. Networks and filmmakers are hiring VR companies to show early adopters that VR is not just for gaming or indie projects. It is the future of all entertainment.

Ideally in the future, cable networks must commit to virtual reality as a legitimate alternative to television broadcasts, once the number of VR users rises enough to justify the costs and disruption. Once the number of VR users goes up, they could televise a huge slate of games with enough notice.

Level of demand was far off until more people used VR regularly. First-time viewers of broadcasts tend to like what they see and come back for more.

Heavy Headsets

VR devices are looking forward to replace television sets. VR headsets would be cheaper for consumers, less destructive to the environment, and overall a more dynamic viewing experience. Cable and network TV companies have already begun investing heavily into VR in the past few months.

The clunky design of today's VR headsets combined with the way immersive content is makes it uncomfortable to watch long-form programming. Five to ten minutes is about the maximum amount of time that people will be comfortable with the headsets, but as the headsets improve, the content will be longer; as technology advances, the content will change as well and the storytelling and the ability to do things in VR will only continue to get better.

Will VR Work for Long Broadcasts?

Online video libraries are filled with games, music videos, and short films, usually ranging from one to ten minutes in length. There are challenges in creating long-form content in VR, and the companies attempting to overcome these hurdles are fully aware of this.

Consumers would want short-form content (sub 30 minutes, maybe under 10) before they are willing to don headsets for hours at a time. With traditional camera work, viewer can be engaged with a small visual slice of a story, but with 360 camera work, creators need to weave a story that encompasses all viewing angles, which may or may not be critical to the main story, but still work or the viewer will become disinterested in the content.

Broadcast TV is far too complex an ecosystem for a director to control all of its angles at once. In lieu of studios disrupting their broadcasts to make room for new technology, studios must instead target shows that best fit the VR mold - exciting atmospheres, multiple camera angles, behind-the-scenes action, and of course, live experiences. Sporting events, talk shows, game shows, and so forth - for these types of shows, being part of or observing the crowd can be as entertaining as the show itself.

Networks are not completely ready to step into the VR fold just yet Content providers have to contend with the clunky first-generation hardware that viewers will be using to watch their shows. Until it is easy to take devices on and off, long sessions in virtual isolation are impractical.

Changing TV from Passive to Interactive

VR's appeal stems from a user's immersion into a simulated world. This appeal suggests that broadcasters should do everything they can to make that world appear natural, and avoid calling attention to the fact that users are not actually there. If networks want to overcome users' short attention spans, building features to keep users connected with friends and in control of their virtual environment is a must to regain attention. This starts by allowing the user to gear the viewing experience to his or her preferences.

360 VR cameras in different locations allow the viewer to pick and choose their own televised event, instead of being fed a stream of different cameras and a video switcher arbitrarily picking their best view.

Future of VR Television

Ultimately, it is uncertain how soon virtual content will get a price tag. Making virtual TV exclusive to certain subscribers, could be the company's strategy to get younger users back, though this will undoubtedly prove unpopular. The fact is, putting a price on the content is the only way through which VR coverage is seen expanding beyond occasional cool demos into consistent, required viewing.

The cutting-edge techniques to capture footage in VR will constantly evolve over the years, or even months. As high-end PC headsets ship out, new headsets will emerge and the cycle will continue and hopefully progress to allow better experiences. In other words, the companies filming in VR can only sit and wait for devices to improve enough to make longer broadcasts more palatable to users; until then, early adopters or smartphone users with clunky headsets may be out of luck if they are looking for easy, comfortable VR TV binging.