My company’s main focus is on developing content, specifically photos, so we have been studying immersive video and virtual reality (VR) with particular interest. We are looking closely at the impact of several new VR creation and consumption technologies that launched last month at CES and at whether VR will be adopted by our users and the creative community at large. Beyond all the hype, how far off is VR in terms of widespread adoption? The answer, it would appear, is: somewhat far.
Making content affordable and simple to create, while ensuring consumption is accessible and ubiquitous significantly increases its adoption. The huge growth and breadth of photography platforms is a great example of this. Without an easy way to take photos via the mobile phone, Instagram and Snapchat would not be revolutionizing the way people communicate and express themselves. Mobile phones have also reduced the friction to create video; if I were to analyze my Facebook feed for content, 40 percent of the videos are high production quality by professional creators, like clips from last night’s Daily Show, and another 40 percent are clips that my friends shot on their phones. It’s easy for me to consume both of these on my phone, tablet, or PC.
The main challenges facing VR today are that it is expensive to create VR content — the platforms, cameras, and software are new and require a significant learning curve — and VR can be difficult, and sometimes costly, to consume.
Notably, YouTube has been bullish on the content side by getting its feet wet in immersive, 360-degree videos. (While there are differences between 360 videos and VR, they share similar attributes.) YouTube’s investment is exciting, but don’t expect millions of high-quality 360-degree videos right away. Bringing 360-degree video to consumers means ingesting feeds from several cameras, and that could prove daunting for producers because the technology is so new and very expensive.
While you don’t necessarily need a headset to watch 360 video, which will help on the adoption side, you do for VR. Add the obtrusiveness of a headset to the mix, and the adoption curve gets longer. For VR to really take off, there needs to be ample original content available to consumers, and tech companies need to focus on making it as seamless as possible to view VR content.
That may mean looking at VR from a usability perspective, beyond the headset, and focusing on mechanisms to make it more consumable, like software. If Google Glass or 3D TVs taught us anything, it’s that most consumers are not rushing out to buy expensive or obtrusive headsets. I’m interested to see how many Oculus Rifts and HoloLenses consumers purchase, but I’m even more curious to see how many people will use these devices to consume content on a regular basis.
So, what does all this mean? Right now, the creator opportunity is wide open — not a lot of original content is being developed yet, so there are lots of opportunities to create immersive experiences and the ability to take a lot of market share. Unfortunately, the market isn’t big yet.
Right now, for publishers and brands that want to enter into this new phase of immersive video, the first goal should be to try to understand it. Know that, unless technology like Magic Leap becomes a consumer game changer tomorrow (which it could), few consumers will initially have access to VR content. As history tells us, original content is king. Until VR content becomes cheaper and easier to produce, there will not be enough content for mass consumers to justify purchasing an expensive, although cool, device.
Andy Yang is CEO of photography community 500px. He has worked in the tech industry for the last 16 years, including as an investor (angel and institutional), banker, consultant, and advisor. Previously he was an investor at Extreme Startups and a venture capitalist at Relay Ventures. he also worked at Netflix and Chegg in strategic planning and analysis roles. Prior to those roles, he was an investment banker at Thomas Weisel Partners and Goldman Sachs in the TMT coverage groups.