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VR Reality Check: Challenges to Widespread Consumer Adoption

VR remains a niche market at this writing, but it's a growing one with huge potential. Here are the latest developments and what it means to adoption in the live production and streaming world.

VR Streaming Platforms

At this writing, there are limited choices for streaming 360° VR, but YouTube’s Live 360 is leading the way in delivering a complete solution for creators and consumers, with Facebook in hot pursuit. YouTube Live 360 supports playback of 360° videos in 1440p/60fps resolution for live streams on computers in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Opera, as well as YouTube and YouTube Gaming apps for Android and iOS. Chrome has implemented full support for 360° video, but technical issues remain on iOS with the Safari browser when viewing 360° video.

YouTube’s Live 360 will even work with low-cost cameras, and its application programming interface (API) enables any camera manufacturer to send video to Live 360. Facebook will expand its VR products with 360° video and plans to include live streaming 360° video as well.

High-Quality Content

As this new VR medium emerges, content producers are still experimenting with how to use the technology to convey their stories. There is a steep learning curve, and creators are optimizing and fine-tuning VR’s narrative language through trial and error.

These producers are facing some limitations that they have to overcome. VR video is more of a static experience than video that involves more switching and camera movement. Once viewers tire of the initial thrill, they will demand more interactivity and will look to experience content with more substance (Figure 5, below). VR content creators will need to step up the quality of their productions substantially as they master the various production technologies and learn to use them more effectively.

Figure 5. The goal of VR content development, as ever, is to deliver a fully immersive experience.

Better Post-Production Software

In order for creators to produce better content, they’ll need better postproduction software for VR 3D-360° production, since most VR postproduction to date has been based on clumsy workarounds and plug-ins with limited features.

Most of the VR editing process consists of using source files in disparate traditional applications. Editing may be done in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, compositing in Nuke, and color grading in DaVinci Resolve, although none of these applications is VR-native.

That said, companies are finally adding features to their future production software suites. Adobe is including VR editing with Premiere Pro CC, and Nuke is allowing for compositing and visual effects to be integrated into VR files. Assimilate’s SCRATCH VR suite looks promising, since it’s designed for real-time VR postproduction and allows you to play back, edit, composite, and color-grade while using an Oculus Rift.

There is an immediate need for Final Cut Pro or After Effects to add functionality to enable VR editors to drop in various sequences and sound and edit them in VR space. Once the postproduction workflow has been established, there will be more content available with better production values.

Technical Hurdles: Resolution
The resolution of the Oculus CV1 and HTC Vive is 2160x1200 pixels. Delivering a more realistic VR experience will require higher-resolution displays, since most of the headsets on the market exhibit the screen-door effect, where the delineation of pixels is visible in the image.

Next-generation screens from Samsung can overcome this effect since they feature ultra-high definition (UHD) 3840x2160 in a 5.5" display. These displays feature a 44.7% increase in pixel density (806ppi) over the previous generation, in addition to sporting an extremely bright image with high contrast and exceptional color.

Once the visuals improve, VR will appeal to more consumers, since the technology will no longer be a distraction to the actual experience.

Spatial/ Directional Audio for Live Streaming

VR audio is as important as video to complete the experience for total immersion. YouTube 360 Live currently doesn’t support directional audio, but eventually it will, since YouTube now supports directional audio for prerecorded VR video content. Directional audio should be standardized for all VR video platforms.

Bandwidth and Dynamic Streaming

According to Akamai, the average internet speed in an America home is 12.5Mbps. For mobile phones on a 4G network, download speeds are averaging 4Mbps–12 Mbps. Carriers are touting 20Mbps–50Mbps download speeds, but these speeds are available only under ideal conditions. High-quality 360° VR videos mostly require 4K resolution at bitrates of at least 25Mbps. To deliver truly immersive 360° video, bandwidth, stability, and efficient codecs must improve across the board, which is currently a work in progress for most carriers.

These bandwidth barriers are effectively limiting viewing of VR live streaming for most individuals. Most people can view lower-quality streams, but the resolution leaves much to be desired.

Companies such as Facebook are deploying a solution called dynamic streaming, which maps the viewport to a pyramid and switches and processes the view in real time depending on where you’re looking. This allows users to view the video in higher resolution at reduced bandwidth.

New Frontier

VR is the new frontier for live streaming and online video. We’re in the midst of an evolutionary process, since manufacturers are still shaping the technology and producers are still exploring the methods of crafting a story and creating content. Developers in all aspects of VR must master the inconsistencies and the pain points in order for VR to achieve mainstream adoption. The whole process, from content creation to content consumption, will be simpler over time.

VR will eventually achieve ubiquity and acceptance as simply another way to experience content. At that point, it will, most likely, supplant other forms of media. Once compelling VR content is readily available and becomes an experience that consumers really want, it will finally be ready for prime time.

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