VB: Are the components going to move to move to a application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) at some point, possibly? Do you think you’ll be able to reach economies of scale?
Voltolina: At some point, yes. The trade-off is always volume and time. As you know, for an ASIC to be efficient you need hundreds of thousands of units. You also need a product that doesn’t evolve very fast. If you look at digital cameras, yes, they’re evolving, but they’re not completely changing every generation. Maybe it was like that in the very beginning, but now the technology is stable, and the volume — hundreds of millions of phones with cameras are being produced every year now. The number of VR cameras in the marketplace today — we’re still at the very beginning. As soon as the economics justify the migration to SoCs or ASICs, that will happen.
VB: What’s a good way to measure growth? Can you measure how many hours of VR content are out there?
Voltolina: We keep track of three or four major areas. One is the installed base of the head-mounted displays. We include Cardboard in that, but we’re counting them in a separate category. Cardboard, you never know if someone’s using it. Maybe you give it to your kids and it ends up in the trash. But something like the Samsung Gear VR, we don’t know how much it gets used, but at least you have the capability. And when people start spending $500 or $700, those devices probably get used.
The installed base of high-performance head-mounted displays is important, then. Also, the amount of money going into VR productions. If it’s true that the majority of those experiences are for marketing purposes — marketing movies or products — marketing works if you have an audience. The bigger the audience, the more marketing is interested in addressing that audience. That’s another driving factor.
We also monitor the major VR content hubs, like the Oculus store, Little Star, Disney VR, and so on. How much is out there for you to watch? If you compare to a year ago the difference is astronomical. It’s gone from tens to hundreds, and pretty soon we’ll be hitting the thousands. A good chunk of it isn’t necessarily the most fantastic stuff, but you can see the quality level going up.
The quality of the top VR experiences is getting significantly better. I don’t know if you remember one of the first pieces of content that was popular, but it was a guy playing the piano with his dog. Everybody thought that was great at the time, but if you watch it now, you’ll be bored in less than a minute. So what? The new ones are real stories. It’s not just, “Oh, a 360 video.” Something is happening for you to follow.
A studio called Magnopus — they won an Oscar for Hugo — did a small experience called The Argos File. They won an award for it. That was shot with Ozo. It’s very much an action story, a crime drama. You see things through the eyes of the victim. It’s very fast. Watching that, you realize that this can be really intense. If you like the genre, it’s a fantastic experience.
VB: Does this look like it’s going to be a good business soon, or is it still more experimental?
Voltolina: We believe it’s going to be a good business. I don’t think we’re at a stage yet where it’s mature, by far. The best comparison I have is the brick phone, which a lot of people in the industry use. The first brick phones were fundamentally phones without wires. Comparing that to the iPhone, it’s night and day. The best you could do with that brick phone was dial a number and make a call, and the battery would last a couple of hours. Right now we’re at that stage.
Of course we’ll move rapidly to whatever will be the iPhone of VR, as far as integration and features and so on. But it’s hard to even imagine, to a certain extent. The concept that is fundamentally true is that — I grew up in a world where every picture, every video, was a rectangle. IMAX is still just a really big rectangle. The new generation, with Minecraft and other games, but also now with VR video, the rectangle is just laid over 360. All the kids growing up now won’t understand why were so limited before. Why did we never move that rectangle around?
For me, that concept is what will improve VR. Of course, we can’t stick with this form factor. Comparing a brick phone to an iPhone, the form factor is amazing. God knows what will transform this box, this mask on your head — the steps you need to take to go into VR right now are significant. But PlayStation VR is already a huge step forward. The setup is compatible to what’s already in your living room. It works immediately. A lot of the steps are getting smoother. That’s why we truly believe the industry is growing.
If we’re able to participate and remain a leader like we are now, well, that’s all up to us. We need to keep innovating and try things like Ozo. We don’t know everything yet. There’s some level of risk you have to take when you’re the first.
VB: The Sony Pictures deal is hopefully going to create more fresh content.
Voltolina: Absolutely, yeah. We did a deal with the Disney group, including all the studios owned by Disney — Marvel, Lucas, ABC, Disney Nature, there are 13 or 14 of them. That was already a huge step. And Sony Pictures also includes Sony Music. It’s going from movie features to TV shows to music videos. When we negotiate those agreements, we always look at a broader range of entertainment.
We also did a production with Warner Bros. for Major Crimes, the TV show. They used the OZO. But that was for a specific show. When the deal is done with a group, it’s much better, because we can go for many different kinds of entertainment.
VB: Are you seeing anybody start to do longer video productions?
Voltolina: We’re seeing things stretch over multiple episodes. The guy who directed Grease, Randal Kleiser, he created a series called Defrost. It’s 10 episodes in VR. The story is that you’re living the point of view of a person who’s been hibernating, and then he’s thawed out. Your family meets you again, but you don’t remember them. All the acting is around you. You’re in a wheelchair and things happen as they push you through the hospital. Each episode is probably 15 minutes? I can see things going in that direction before they go for 60 or 90 minute features. Live events are already at 60 minutes, though.
VB: What are some of the other ideas people have had for it? I’ve seen views from the top of the arena in a basketball game.
Voltolina: We had a guy climbing Mount Everest with an Ozo. We didn’t even sponsor it. This guy just bought an Ozo and climbed Everest. He re-created the experience of being at camp one and camp two and so on. Of course you have sports, putting the Ozo in the front row, behind the basket, on a race car. People have gone to fantastic locations, like inside a volcano in Guatemala.
The different compared to a normal documentary is that you have that freedom to look around. Of course, a story still has to be told. The experience has to be entertaining. If it’s just silent, it’s pretty boring. If you’re alone in the jungle, just walking around, after a while you lose interest. But if there’s somebody talking about things that you can look at, while you still have the freedom to look where you want, that’s much more entertaining.
For the news, you can imagine — if you’re in the middle of an event where even the journalist doesn’t know exactly what’s happening, having a document where you can look around without the limitation of a cameraman deciding where you can look, that’s huge. You can revisit an event and find so many things you never saw before. You have the whole set of data.
Red Bull is doing a lot of VR, of course, extreme sports and so on. Locations, news, live events, music — you name it. The VR experience isn’t a substitute for video, though, which is interesting. It’s complementary. Say you come to my house to watch a game. We’re watching the screen together, and then someone on social media says, “Check out the home team’s bench.” Then you can go in VR and see what’s happening there while we still watch the game on TV. It doesn’t always have to be a substitute.