This piece is the second in a three-part series on TheMediaBriefing, written by Chris Sutcliffe, looking at how 360 video and virtual reality (VR) are huge opportunities for publishers.

The Part 1 was about what is currently being done in this nascent phase of 360 video publishing, and Part 3 looks at how publishers can monetise the new medium. This time, we take a look at the obstacles to be overcome before the medium is viable for smaller publishers.

Technology is an autocatalyst. That is, the development of a new technology then itself allows the development of another technology.

Often those technologies will be complementary and accelerate the development of each other in a big virtuous circle. It’s one of the reasons people theorise we’re rapidly approaching the technological singularity – when AI-driven technology becomes capable of recursive self-improvement.

But, and more relevant for our purposes, that development of new technology also allows the promulgation of new recreational uses of tech, and new mediums for publishers to explore.

Crucially, the time between the development of a new medium and the point at which it has been adopted widely enough for it to be economically viable for publishers is shrinking, and has been for some time.

This article on Pew Research Centre summarises research from the Economist and singularity.com demonstrating that the number of years before a new technology is adopted by one quarter of the population is ever-decreasing.

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Additionally, this piece on journalism.co.uk summarising a talk by associate professor Robert Hernandez of LA’s USC Annenberg School makes it plain that the amount of time it takes for a technology to hit a user-base of 50 million users is also falling extremely rapidly.

VR consultancy firm KZero predicted six months there’ll be over 40 million active users of VR by 2016. At the time, that put it on track to be a member of the 50 million user club by 2020, the year in which Digi-Capital predicts the VR market will be worth $30billion.

But since then the landscape has seen rapid upheaval, to the point that we expect adoption to have hit 50 million users well before that. For a start, Statista are forecasting that the global userbase will be 171 million by 2018, driven largely by the early majority demographic.

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And, though it’s a matter for part three of this series, they also forecast:

“The VR market is set to grow at a very fast rate in the following years, with revenues from virtual reality software alone forecast to reach an over three thousand percent increase in four years.”

And while there have, obviously, been technologies that failed to reach that lower limit of users required for an industry to support them, the fact that so many of those that have are tools for communication and media delivery suggest that VR (or more accurately the 360 degree video that’s currently labelled as ‘VR’) is a strong contender to be the next success.

That possibility has been made even more likely recently as a result of the NYT’s bundling of 1.31 million Google Cardboard headsets with its print product – which saw an encouraging response from the audience. FromMobile Marketing:

“The average time spent engaging within the app is 14.7 minutes, with 92 percent of videos viewed in Cardboard mode. The success of the innovation prompted the publication to release another virtual reality film coming out in December on the same mobile app with a similar format.”

And of that 14.7 minutes figure, Andy Wright, senior vice president of advertising and publisher at The New York Times Magazine, said: “Given the average time spent within the NYT VR app is close to 15 minutes, an unheard of metric for digital media, it is clear that this experience resonated with viewers.”

Despite that, there are obstacles to overcome before the medium is truly viable for publishers.

The first is the cost investment required for publishers. This runs the gamut from the cost of purchasing the equipment required to create the high-quality video content that audiences expect from larger publishers to the time required for either hiring specialists to collaborate with or allowing the content creators time to experiment with the possibilities of the medium.

For the former, it’s actually not as expensive as you might assume to purchase a 360 degree camera rig. The prices run from a couple of hundred dollars to the thousands of dollars, but these are expenses well within the reach of your typical publisher, and as more companies enter the market those prices are likely to fall.

Secondly, distribution is relatively easy, and more so since YouTube have added a special Cardboard viewing mode for their videos on Android. Many VR apps are available for free or cheap on the app store, and there are likely to be increasing apps solely for the distribution of 360 videos in the mould of VRSE. Essentially, if your audience has a smartphone it’s likely they can consume your 360 video content.

But there are more fascinating obstacles to overcome before 360 videos – and true VR – can be widely adopted.

The first is that, as a result of the minimum-viable product nature of many VR headsets, which use stereoscopic display, most of the VR products that early adopters get their hands on will run into a neurological roadblock, outlined in this excellent article from Wired:

“These stereoscopic headsets create 3D images by showing the left and right eye images that are slightly offset—the more offset, the closer an object appears. That means your eyes are always accommodating to the screen strapped on your face, but they’re converging to a distance further off.

“Your eyes aren’t dumb; it’s totally possible to uncouple accommodation and convergence, but they won’t be happy about it. And they’ll be downright rebelling after a few hours.”

That, in addition to the potential for VR shovelware getting dumped onto the app store, could harm the enthusiasm for and therefore adoption of the medium.

But there are other fundamental problems to be overcome. For instance, the body’s proprioception is keyed to adapted to your personal height and body type. For the same reason that mirror box syndrome can (reputedly) alleviate the pain of phantom limbs, the tricks virtual reality employs can stimulate a physiological response in the user.

As a result, introducing too great a variance in the body type (height/weight/etc) means that an individual’s proprioception can be thrown off, breaking the ‘presence’ of the experience and arguably blunting the point of true VR.

But, as a result of the efforts of the NYT and other publishers in pushing the new medium via the minimum viable product of Google Cardboard, in addition to the lower-than-expected price of the Samsung gear VR headset worldwide, it’s likely adoption of VR will be faster than we could have predicted even six months ago.

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