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Sky Gets Serious About Virtual Reality

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

Today Sky announced that it has created an in-house unit dedicated to Virtual Reality (VR) content production called Sky VR Studio. This underlines the importance with which Europe’s largest pay-TV company assigns to the new immersive form of story telling. Sky is initially using the technology to help augment its premium sports content (Friday sees the release of two VR films shot during the Formula 1 testing in Barcelona, allowing F1 fans to go beyond the traditional coverage of the event and view the garages, pit lane action and so forth.) Over the coming year Sky plans to release upwards of 20 individual films   covering areas such as news, sports and cultural events. The VR content is tailored to the specifications of the two main hardware players in the VR arena –Occulus and its Oculus Rift headset, and Samsung and its Gear VR.

VR And The Novelty Factor

In January the main conversation among TV executives at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was about VR. Industry decision-makers wanted to know what the soon to be launched mass market devices were capable of , and to get a genuine sense of just how far along the hype cycle the technology really was. 20th Century Fox chose CES to debut its blockbuster VR tie-in The Martian VR Experience. This was the studio’s second VR content offering and was its first serious attempt to test the public appetite for additional VR content built around a conventional film narrative.

Although well received by users The Martian VR Experience highlighted the current weakness of VR- it’s currently a gimmicky add-on to studio content. Following in the foot-steps of video game story-telling, VR for premium content such as feature films consists of replicating scenes from the main film and then making them immersive for an individual  who engages with the content in a prescriptive manner. While this is undoubtedly entertaining and of niche appeal it fails to redefine the process of delivering content.

VR And A New Way Of Telling Stories

Unlike previous disappointing iterations, VR in 2016 is truly immersive. As such it deserves to be utilized for engaging in content in a holistic sense rather than in piecemeal fashion. Sky is most likely to succeed at incorporating VR in Sporting events. This  where the multi-dimensional nature and subjective interpretation of rapidly unfurling events allows VR to be optimally used with the lowest additional content rendering costs. Additionally it is a use case which is most likely to appeal to the mainstream consumer.

However, the potential to transform story-telling is what could really make VR stand out as a distinctive must-have addition to home entertainment. Films and TV series are based on stories, and currently we are only shown the point of view chosen by the director at each specific point in time in the narrative. With VR  we have the potential to choose from which character’s perspective we literally experience the story. This allows one complete piece of content to become multiple pieces, and enables the director to tell the story in numerous different ways. Effectively returning film-making to the narrative freedom enjoyed by the novelist, and offering an equally immersive experience for the content consumer. This is the big opportunity afforded by VR and what will ultimately decide how far along the hype cycle the technology makes it this time.

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