MTV Brings Live 360 Virtual Reality to the Video Music Awards

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MTV has a message for anyone unsure about the future of virtual reality: This isn’t a passing fad, the way 3D was. This is something completely new.

“We did experiments with 3D 5 years ago, like everybody else, and in my opinion, this is a new genre,” says Jeff Jacobs, senior vice president of production planning, strategies, and operations for MTV Networks. “3D was a way of watching television. This, on the other hand, could be a new genre.”

On Sunday, Aug. 30, MTV made its first big bet on virtual reality when it offered viewers a live 360-degree look from the red carpet of the 2015 Video Music Awards. MTV also created 360-degree views from the awards show itself, which it made available online once the show was over.

3D never caught on because it involved buying an expensive new television set, Jacobs says, while VR works with any smartphone.

The VMAs weren’t MTV’s first encounter with 360-degree video. The network has been experimenting with virtual reality for several months now. Most of those efforts were learning experiences never put online. In fact, MTV had only released one VR experiment prior to this: It shot and distributed a segment from America’s Best Dance Crew, one of its most popular shows. During the season eight premiere on July 29, the show opened with all six of that season’s crews performing with R&B star Ne-Yo. That performance was captured in 360-degree VR. Called “ABDC 360: The Ne-Yo Experience,” that video has to date been watched more than 300,000 times. Instructions at the beginning of the video tell viewers to use a Google Cardboard viewer or to hold their phone up to pan around the performance space. Anyone using a desktop browser can pan around using a mouse.

“It was gangbusters on YouTube right away,” Jacobs says. “I don’t know what was more encouraging: the fans, the numbers of people who viewed it in 360-degree mode, or the comments from the viewers talking about how cool and what a great experience it was to watch it.”

It’s a fun video. Viewers are free to follow NeYo around the stage, watch the audience, or see how the different dance crews get in position for their next part. The experience is self-directed, and viewers can look wherever they choose.

In that video and the months of testing that preceded it, MTV learned what does and doesn’t work in 360-degree virtual reality video. Jacobs shared those lessons with Streaming Media.

Camera Placement

Discovering the best place for the camera— for the viewer to experience the event—was one of the most important things MTV learned. In the America’s Best Dance Crew video it uses multiple locations, as no one spot was best for all the action. The VR camera can’t be in the way of the broadcast camera, and it can’t block the action for the studio audience. It also can’t be in a position that would cause a safety issue.

“We ended up attaching one camera to the jib, the crane, so that when the jib moved in, the camera moved, which actually is fantastic. Now we’re not obstructing any views,” Jacobs says.

Depth of Field

Zooming on VR video isn’t an option yet, Jacobs says, so producers need to find the best location for showing both the onstage talent and the faces of the audience members. He calls it a tug-of-war. The camera needs to be positioned so viewers can enjoy watching anything in the studio.

“If the edge of the stage is point zero, for example, and the performer is at 20 feet and the drum is at 40 feet and the audience is at 50 feet, positioning of the camera for depth of field and focus is actually a real strategic thing,” Jacobs says. “Those are the fun little challenges we live for.”

Lighting

Lighting is a special concern with 360-degree video. While traditional video requires only the onstage talent to be lit, everything in a 360-degree video— including the audience—is part of the entertainment and needs to be visible. It’s important to work with the lighting director to create an illuminated radius around the camera that lets viewers watch what they choose and doesn’t interfere with the entertainment onstage.

Height

MTV shot test footage during several music performances to learn the optimal height for a VR camera. Too high and the viewer looks down at the entertainer; too low and facial expressions aren’t visible. Producers need to find a height that shows the dancers’ feet, the camerapeople on the set, and the audience all equally well.

The 2015 Video Music Awards

When MTV aired its VMAs this year, VR streaming was part of the mix for the first time ever. From the start, the production team was clear that it didn’t simply want to put a VR camera on the red carpet. If they were going to offer 360-degree VR, they wanted to enhance what the viewer saw, not create a gimmick. After meeting with multiple red carpet team members, they decided to create a circular interview area off the red carpet with the camera in the middle. That way viewers got a more immersive experience and were able to see more of the action.

“Imagine building a carpet in a shape that’s conducive to 360° storytelling,” Jacobs says. “That’s what we did. It took a few months, but we met with the executive producers from the VMAs. They brought in the scenic designer. They brought in the art director. We sat and we worked with them to build a red carpet that was conducive to 360-degree storytelling without compromising the needs of a red carpet.”

That was the idea, but in this experimental new world, things don’t always go as planned. Kelly Osbourne was hired to interview people in the circular area, but MTV ran into problems during rehearsals. The VR camera was suspended from the ceiling at a height of 7'2". During rehearsals, the producers realized that people walked under the camera rather than walking around the edge of the circle, and that didn’t create a good VR experience.

The production team moved the VR camera nine times over 3 days, looking for the ideal placement. Finally they settled with a spot along the red carpet that showed both the celebrities and the photographers.

MTV offered a second live VR stream for preshow viewers, but that was also something of a fluke. The producers created the “Pupparazzi Pen”—a circular bin full of adorable puppies with a camera in the middle. They planned to record interactions during the night and then edit that into best moments for on-demand viewing. However, MTV’s VR partner announced a technical improvement right before the show that allowed it to feed VR 360-degree video into a typical video production workflow. With that in place, it was just as easy to offer two VR streams as one, and so the puppycam went live.

“We talked about it. We didn’t know if we should,” Jacobs says. “We didn’t want to overstuff the viewers, but we ended up putting them both in live and it paid off, because we had really good viewership.”

Preshow coverage began at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Viewers needed to go to MTV’s All Access Live page or download the IM360 iOS or Android app to watch the coverage. MTV hired IM360 to create the VR streams, and chose to use IM360’s existing mobile app for streaming rather than develop its own app.

MTV inked a deal with IM360 only 2 weeks before the ceremony. Formed in April 2015, IM360 is a joint venture between Immersive Media and Digital Domain. Jacobs says his most important criteria in picking a VR partner was that it be creative, experienced with advanced technology, and have a sense of humor. He found that criteria in IM360, whose parent companies have been involved in VR for a decade already, creating projects for clients such as the CIA and Google.

“They were a perfect fit, and we were glad to be in business with them,” Jacobs says. “They are part technical, they are part creative, they are aggressive, and they are good people. I’ve got to tell you, the first time I went to their offices in Venice Beach and I mentioned that I wanted to bring the art director and the scene designer to talk with their VPs, they got all excited.”

IM360 brought a variety of virtual reality hardware with it to capture the red carpet and the awards.

“We’ll be using a couple of our different cameras,” Myles Mcgovern, president of IM360 and president and CEO of Immersive Media, said before the show. “We always talk about the cameras based on geodesic designs. We have a dodeca, a hex (right), and a quatro. They’ll be using a couple of those, and I believe they’re even testing one of our new cameras, which is more designed for VR so it’s a very high frame rate.”

Geodesic design is critical to 360-degree video, and has to do with how the camera divides a sphere into equal parts to capture an accurate image.

“We’re kind of camera agnostic,” Mcgovern added. “I can take half a dozen GoPros, put them together, calibrate them, plug them into our platform, and just stream.”

Lessons Learned

While this event was a first for MTV, the network didn’t plan a huge promotion around it. Beyond a press release, MTV made little effort to drive viewers online for the VR red carpet. There was no branded app or VR microsite; just a page on the MTV site. For this first big experiment in VR, Jacobs didn’t look for a certain number of viewers (or if he did, he wouldn’t admit to it). As long as he got positive feedback from viewers saying the VR gave them a more immersive feeling about the event, he says, then that’s good enough.

“If our viewers online tell us that we told them yet another story around the red carpet as a result of this emerging technology, kaboom, that’s a win,” Jacobs says. For Jacobs, this new type of video is all about providing a richer experience than standard TV ever could. The whole arena is a stage with 360-degree virtual reality.

“If The Weeknd is performing onstage, don’t you want to watch other celebrities in the front row reacting to the performance?” Jacobs asks. “Don’t you want to be able to look around at the kids, who’s singing the words, who’s not? Don’t you want to be able to see the jib operator focusing and the stage manager setting up the next act? To me, I’m a behind-the-scenes freak, you know. Don’t you want to see the next talent walking up to the podium to thank them and give away the next award?”

In the end, nearly 100,000 viewers tuned in for the live VR streams, which isn’t bad considering the sparse promotion. MTV created six VR on-demand clips after the show, all of which are available on YouTube. The top draw shows Nicky Minaj calling out Miley Cyrus in front of the packed audience. As of this writing, it’s been viewed more than 560,000 times. A confrontation captured in 360-degree VR is irresistible.

“This is the epitome of where 360-degree VR is helpful,” Jacobs says. “I’m watching on YouTube, right now, on the MTV channel: ‘Nicki Minaj Confronts Miley Cyrus on Stage.’ That’s a fight that these girls were having that was pretty well publicized. I’m watching Nicki Minaj talking to Miley in disgust, then I’m scrolling with my mouse and I’m watching Miley on a stage responding. But also, and this is really good, I’ve got 18-year-old girls right in front of the camera who are gasping with their mouths wide open. Then I’ve got Kanye and Kim Kardashian in the front row, listening to this, turning their heads back and forth like the U.S. Open. That’s hilarious, I got the photographer from Wire Image, shooting pictures back and forth. I’m able to tell my own story of what’s going on. All of a sudden at one point, everyone turns to Miley for Miley’s response. It’s like tennis, back and forth. It’s actually quite hilarious.”

Jacobs learned several lessons from this early outing with virtual reality, and not all of them have to do with what goes in front of the camera. For one thing, he learned that the network needs to do a better job of instructing the viewers. Young people latch onto new tech sooner, but that doesn’t mean everyone already knows how to access VR. MTV needs to teach viewers the best way to enjoy 360-degree VR, he says. Many watched the streams on their computers or laptops, but that’s not the best experience. He wants to get people picking up their phones. Before they can do that, however, they need to download the app and preferably use a Google Cardboard viewer.

“For our first time out, we weren’t looking to invest in Cardboard and give them away,” Jacobs says. “We weren’t looking to do a viewer sponsor, like Conan does with AT&T and give them away. Moving forward, probably we will, because these are the people with point-of-purchase displays in place. They have an army of retail stores, so it makes sense.”

While there’s plenty of room to grow, Jacobs is happy with the VMA results and is looking forward to MTV’s next experience with VR. But he doesn’t want VR to simply be a gimmick— one more clever camera angle—for awards shows. No, he believes this has the potential to open up whole new areas of storytelling. Look for it to pop up again playing a bigger role in some narrative.

“Is it a second-screen experience for a series, for a reality show?” Jacobs asks. “We don’t know. We’re talking about it now. We’re figuring it out.”

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “MTV Brings Live 360-Degree Virtual Reality to the Video Music Awards.”

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