With Sony announcing this week that its PlayStation VR headset will be released in October, virtual reality has become the buzzword in modern entertainment. And, just to make it official, another juggernaut has entered the ring: Sky.
The broadcast is launching a “major new commitment” to VR content, creating its own in-house studio to produce immersive content designed to “transport fans of sports, movies, news and entertainment to locations around the world, offering a truly unique perspective on major events”.
This weekend sees the release of its first efforts: two films shot during Formula 1 testing in Barcelona, which will transport viewers to the pit lane, into the team garages, and out on the track.
The videos were produced in conjunction with Formula One Management and Williams Martini Racing and will be made available via the Facebook 360 Video platform. The full VR experience will also be available on the Oculus platform, and viewable on the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift headsets.
It’s the start of a major VR push for Sky, which will produce more than 20 individual films, across a unique range of Sky content, from major cultural events in news to big sporting events.
Its team is led by Executive Producer Neil Graham and includes production staff with experience in VR film-making, such as VR director Richard Nockles, who directed Sky VR Studio’s F1 film and has been behind a wide range of VR projects for a number of global brands, winning awards for his work.
“The development of VR technology is moving at an incredible pace and excitement is building about its potential,” says Gary Davey, Managing Director, Content at Sky. “This is just the start and we’re looking forward to creating more amazing VR content and exploring the possibilities with our tech and content partners.”
Sound familiar? The rise of VR comes only a short while after the rise of 3D. It, too, was heralded as the future of home entertainment – and was also heavily backed by Sky, which launched a dedicated channel in 2010. Last year, it scrapped the channel altogether, switching all 3D content to its VOD platform instead.
In 2013, Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC’s head of 3D, also said it would suspend its programming indefinitely after a two-year trial, saying that it was “quite hassly” for viewers and that it had “not taken off”. Earlier this month, meanwhile, Samsung and Philips confirmed that they will not be including 3D playback on any of their TVs for 2016, due to “limited consumer demand” – effectively signing the technology’s death certificate.
Now, the industry is already focusing on the next incentive to upgrade: 4K, and other ultra high-definition variants, which improve picture quality without the need for additional gizmos.
Virtual reality, however, is also a growing focus for the living room crowd, with YouTube already supporting virtual reality videos – and the cheap-as-chips Google Cardboard viewer, which allows you to slot a compatible smartphone in the holder and watch VR content immersively, also making it accessible and affordable. For meatier VR propositions, Sony’s headset looks to do the same, with its £349.99 price tag lower than rival Oculus Rift, which retails at £499.
Sky is also getting into the hardware and software game, with plans for a dedicated Sky VR app.
Will VR be the new 3D TV? With technology advancing so quickly, any innovation has a potentially short shelf life, but virtual reality also has a distinct advantage over its doomed predecessor: the support of the gaming world. Oculus Rift will launch in the US on 28th March 2016, with 30 odd games to give the platform the clout it needs to develop – Nintendo-proofing it, if you will.
Sky, meanwhile, reveals that it has been investing in VR for a number of years: in 2013, the company backed Jaunt, a US-based company pioneering cinematic virtual reality. Since then, Sky has been carrying out testing across a range of events. Already, the Sky News team has produced 360-degree videos, taking viewers to the centre of the migrant crisis with footage from the refugee landing beach in Lesbos, and the refugee camp in Calais. Sky Movies also trialled the technology on the red carpet of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere. With Google, Sony, HTC and Sky all in the ring, virtual reality really could be a long-term reality.