Author(s): Paolo Pescatore
Last week, I had the chance to enjoy an evening with the legendary Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum. As well as sharing some great stories of when he first launched colour TV at the BBC, he talked about his involvement in Sky's new virtual reality experience, Hold the World. The service will be available within the Sky VR app on Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift headsets in spring 2018.
The new experience was commissioned by Sky's VR Studio in partnership with content production company Factory 42 and the Natural History Museum. Sir David was filmed by more than 100 cameras to digitally create a 3D hologram of the presenter as a personal tour guide. Users of the app will get an immersive view of rare specimens available at the museum, with commentary from Sir David about several rare objects and exhibits from its collection, including a blue whale skeleton, a stegosaurus, a trilobite, a dragonfly, a butterfly and a pterosaur.
Sir David drew a chuckle from the crowd when he said that his hologram looks much better than he does. Clearly impressed with the virtual reality experience after trying it for the first time, the presenter said it was breathtakingly beautiful. Hold the World is unquestionably a great immersive offering and one that I know my children and others will love to explore. It brings the Natural History Museum to the living room.
During a panel discussion, Factory 42 co-founder John Cassy explained the variety of filming techniques and processes that were used to stitch the museum's rooms and items together. The 3D hologram of Sir David was developed by Microsoft in its Seattle studio using a method called volumetric capture. Mr Cassy also talked about the project's limitations, with challenges in accurately recreating each room and the ultra-fine details of animals. To portray all these elements, the team would need greater computing power.
In my opinion, this project will open up new possibilities for virtual reality technology in other museums, and more broadly in vertical market segments. Sir David went on to say that "Museums can take specimens that people on the other side of the world are working on. It's a democratisation or universalisation".
Within two years of offering the UK's first dedicated stand-alone VR app, Sky has decided to relaunch it and make it available to all customers who subscribe to its Sky VIP service. It's a smart move to boost awareness of its loyalty app and to lower its churn rate. The company reported in its latest financial results that it attracted 1.4 million users for the period ending 31 December 2017.
I don't doubt that for some providers virtual reality is an exciting area, as it allows content and media owners to be creative. But this latest experience clearly underlines the challenges of producing this type of content. Delivering financially viable virtual reality projects to a mass market is no easy feat. There remains substantial costs in content creation, production, editing and distribution in this format, as well as long timescales.
The most significant obstacle facing the media industry is how it can make money from virtual reality when the business models remain unclear and unproven. In addition, consumers want a social experience when watching shows or events, but this is still challenging with a virtual reality headset. Hold the World is an exception, and I expect others will emerge.
Over the past year, I've noticed that virtual reality appears to have stalled. However, major announcements made in late 2017 and at CES 2018 signalled that momentum for the technology is picking up again (see CES 2018: Virtual and Augmented Reality). Although it's still a niche category, the industry is slowly addressing important hurdles in content availability, comfort, compatibility and affordability.
In the short to medium term, I firmly believe broadcasters will put greater focus on live content shown in 360 degrees (CCS Insight Predictions for 2018 and Beyond). In addition to standard TV coverage, they'll provide 360-degree content as a supplementary way to watch certain sports and events, starting with curated 360-degree highlights. As the technology develops, users will be able to switch between various cameras and change viewpoints using remote controllers or companion smartphone apps.
Virtual reality will need significant investment, but it offers scope for content owners to deliver very creative experiences.
Sign up to our free Daily Insight service here.