Making mobile video VR a reality

Soon every smartphone will be VR-enabled. This will open up the virtual floodgates, making video-based VR experiences more affordable and accessible. Immersive VR will go mainstream not on laptops, smart TVs or games consoles but on mobiles. 

Affordable headsets such as Samsung Gear VR and the recently released Google Daydream View are already gaining traction with early adopters for VR gaming and content streaming via apps such as Netflix VR and HBO Now VR. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As well as media and entertainment, there is a huge market opportunity for organisations in other sectors to boost engagement with video-based, mobile VR content: fly-on-the-wall corporate training and company events, real estate sales, retail, and virtual classrooms. 

As is often the case with new technologies, confusion abounds.  

With mobile VR, organisations can create fantastic live and VOD viewing experiences for users to watch on their mobile phones, using a variety of video formats (e.g. 2D, 3D, 180/360 degree). But how can VR video supplement your existing content strategy? Which video formats will prevail? And what are the key considerations when creating mobile VR video experiences for the first time?

Using VR video to boost your content strategy

Here are some ways in which mobile VR video can be used in different market sectors. 

Entertainment. Live events such as the Six Nations rugby are obvious targets. By using traditional broadcast supplemented with VR content, it is possible to transport rugby fans to a front-row seat, and make them feel as though they are actually sitting in the stadium.  This type of service delivers a highly engaging experience for hardcore fans that can also be monetised. As well as advertising, brands get the opportunity to sponsor the VR live stream or recorded show. Plus service providers can choose to add a VR event as a freemium tier or as a standalone pay-per-view for live events.

Simulated orientation experiences.  In today’s competitive higher education market, 360-degree video can provide universities with a powerful marketing, recruitment and admissions tool. It can not only help to entice students to apply, but also helps orient new students during freshers week. Virtual tours of dorms, lecture theatres, common rooms and of course the all-important bars help to bring the campus to life in a way that photographs and website copy can’t. 

Similarly, for large companies with a distributed global workforce, new recruits can integrate faster by having access to a 360-degree view of offices from their VR-enabled handset. 

Some estate agencies already use 360-degree virtual house tours to help sell premium properties. By incorporating these videos into the mobile VR environment alongside 2D content such as floorplans, potential home buyers get an even more immersive experience.

Immersive training experiences. Mobile VR video is especially useful for immersive training experiences, where trainees need to learn how to prioritise in a complex environment – for example, triage. In a 360-degree view the trainees are not able to view the entire visual frame at any one time, which makes it harder for them to make smart decisions at speed. They have to look around the virtual environment and decide whom to help first. This is a far more effective training tool than flat video because it engages more parts of the brain, making it more realistic.

Retail transactions.  Retailers are already adept at using video on their websites, but the next step is to let remote shoppers take a closer look at products in store as if they were physically there. This offers a much more immersive and satisfying shopping experience than simply seeing flat videos or images of items on a website. This is already happening in China, where there is a service that has virtualised Harrods and Macys. Shoppers can navigate through these stores, select products from the shelves, and buy them with one click. 

Which video formats?

All video formats work in mobile VR, but there are a few important points to consider before jumping in with both feet. 

Many of the VR experiences available currently simply offer traditional 2D video inside a virtual lounge, theatre, stadium or classroom.  This approach adds an immersive twist to the viewing of standard 2D content and also has the advantage of being bandwidth and device friendly.

Immersive 360 video goes one step further and teleports the viewer inside the content. But 360 video has the downside of draining mobile batteries fast and can also lead to overheating. Because of this, the best approach is to combine 2D and 360-degree content.  For VOD scenarios - for example learning about the solar system at school - pupils can be teleported into a future classroom environment that includes a few minutes of traditional 2D educational video and, next to it, a short one-minute 360 video of a trip into the solar system.

Likewise for live events. On Oscars night for instance, mobile VR viewers can be transported into virtual front-row seats where they watch the traditional 2D broadcast and also have the chance to go backstage via a 360 video feed.

Creating mobile VR experiences

There are a number of ways to start creating mobile VR video experiences, ranging from easy to more challenging. The simplest approach is to create a VR app – either in-house or with a specialist VR app developer - that wraps a 3D screening room around traditional 2D content.  Standard 2D post-processing and distribution tools are used, removing the requirement to learn or purchase new tools.

One level up from this is to incorporate 360 video. Planning is key. The 360 cameras need to be positioned in the correct place prior to filming - usually in the centre of the frame or scene.  It’s also important to plan ahead of time how you will guide the user and let them know where to look next – for example, by using sound or special effects.

With 360 video, the different frames need to be stitched together. Some cameras stitch the frames while recording, while others require this to be done in post-production. Ideally this should be done locally prior to uploading the file to the distribution platform.  For easy mobile viewing, the content needs to be added to a mobile VR application. 

The most challenging option is to incorporate live 360 video.  This actually throws up fewer planning challenges than with VOD because it’s usually pretty obvious where 360 cameras need to be placed to capture a sports event, live concert or global consumer product launch: halfway along the football pitch or right in front of the stage. This gives viewers the ability to look right and left and capture all the action as it happens.

The challenges with live 360 video lie with the processing and distribution elements. First, the frames need to be stitched together and transcoded in real time, which requires lots of computing power. And then the content ideally needs to be pushed to the cloud in 4K, which requires considerable bandwidth and scalability, as well as a robust uplink. Viewing long-form live 360 video on today’s VR-ready phones will rapidly drain the battery, so it might be better to recommend viewers watch this type of content on a laptop or similar with a VR headset for now though!

In summary, the opportunities that mobile video VR opens up for all types of organisations are considerable. The mobile VR wave is about to break. And many smart organisations are already starting to think about how to create more immersive experiences for customers, employees, students and partners.  Making mobile VR a reality is there for the taking!

Jeff Rubenstein, VP, Kaltura
Image source: Shutterstock/Ahmet Misirligul