Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE.
If the first week of July – when Pokémon Go blew through the zeitgeist – was augmented reality’s coming-out party, is this current week or two the same for virtual reality?
Also on Thursday, the VR Society opened its big two-day On the Lot conference at Paramount Pictures, featuring traditional Hollywood creators – such as directors Bryan Singer and James Foley, musician Will.I.Am, and comedian David Spade (who is a Sony favorite) – alongside top VR execs from giants such as Google, Sony, Intel and AMD. Pretty much all of them were optimistically calling on creators to make more, more, more (and better) virtual content to attract more, more, more audiences and kickstart this new creative platform.
The biggest reason for optimism right now is probably Sony’s PS VR, which debuted to strong reviews at a cost of $400 ($100 more if you need some additional accessories). While that’s not cheap, it represents what to my mind is the Goldilocks position among VR viewing options, which otherwise range from free (with very limited capabilities and quality) to several hundred dollars (and require access to a high-end Windows PC). The VR experiences possible within those prices range widely too.
Sony’s device is well positioned in this universe. It provides most of a high-end experience, is more ergonomically friendly than nearly all of its competitors, and most importantly, runs on a stock PlayStation 4, which already is in more than 40 million homes worldwide. When it comes to creating content for a platform, that huge installed base of possible customers is a great place to start.
Throw in Sony’s PlayStation Vue Network, which provides subscribers a “skinny” bundle of traditional pay-TV channels; Sony’s movie, TV and music divisions; its relationships with game makers, filmmakers and musicians; its over-the-top video service featuring apps from Netflix, Amazon and many others; and its music-streaming capabilities with Spotify. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why some in the industry believe the PS4/PS VR combination may be a savior.
Indeed, one old friend of mine, a veteran of the game and YouTube video business now making high-end VR content, likened Sony’s hardware debut to a parting of the heavens for nervous execs in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The concern all year has been focused on the imminent arrival of too many hardware devices and not enough compelling material to run on them.
It’s also true that, though the conference was focused on entertainment, Sony’s debut was about games, as it launched new Star Wars Battlefront and Batman Arkham releases among about two-dozen titles. Many other games also will play on the headsets, though not in VR, as will other traditional content, for those at ease with wearing a head cocoon for hours at a time.
But Sony Entertainment exec Kuni Suzuki told the conference that the company has only just begun serving content of all kinds to the platform.
“It’s a new domain for entertainment,” Suzuki said. “We’re starting with games but will be expanding (into other kinds of entertainment) very soon.”
Sony’s many competitors in entertainment and technology aren’t just sitting back and leaving the field to it, of course. But clearly, in these early days, it’s to their benefit to have someone, even a competitor, build a hot platform that will attract content creators and help fuel a sustainable industry.
There’s another reason for the urgency behind the exhortations to make more cool stuff. Traditional Hollywood sees VR as an opportunity to create a new, compelling, and technically complex entertainment platform where the industry’s strengths can shine. To put it bluntly, Hollywood thinks it’s great that the tools of VR creation are pricey and complicated for now.
That means the big entertainment companies can make “premium” VR experiences without worrying about all those upstart YouTube creators who have vacuumed up big swathes of the audiences for Hollywood films and TV shows. As the business model for those older entertainment offerings continues to soften, VR represents a place where Hollywood can again dominate.
“Good VR is really hard to do, let alone put it on the web,” said Jake Zim, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Sr. Vice President for VR. “It’s a good place for this industry” to focus its attention.
That advantage likely will only last for a few years at the most, given technology’s relentless march to smaller, simpler, smarter and cheaper. But for now, it’s a Hollywood headstart.
And certainly, there’s plenty of consumer interest in the Sony product. This week, the Wall Street Journal profiled a fan who spent $200 flying to the other end of Japan to secure a pre-order for the device because all the Tokyo stores were sold out. There’s considerable interest in the U.S. too, with ads like this one from gamer-oriented site IGN instructing people to buy before it sells out again.
All this, of course, makes me think Black Friday will be a very good day for Sony as holiday shoppers make the PS VR one of the season’s hot gifts. And that will suit Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, just fine.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.