As European TV pushes into virtual reality, monetization challenges lie ahead

No one is quite sure how popular virtual reality will be. Nearly half a decade after Facebook Inc.'s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014 – arguably the first major push in VR headset sales have fallen short of earlier projections and monetization of VR platforms has been slow to materialize.

The emerging technology, which provides wearers of a headset a computer-generated simulation of three-dimensional images, is rapidly gaining momentum in television, however, with European broadcasters stepping up efforts to tap into VR's potential.

This week, British public service broadcaster the BBC launched a documentary series about the river Nile through a new BBC VR app on the Oculus Gear VR store.

"The launch of the app certainly signifies that VR as a medium, when taken seriously … can produce something that truly differentiates itself from any other form of media that's out there," according to Clemens Wangerin, managing director of VR platform vTime.

"It goes way beyond what is possible on a 2D screen and even 360 video," he explained in an interview.

Other European broadcasters experimenting with VR include Sky plc, which launched a VR film studio two years ago. And as the demand for immersive experiences grows, pay TV giants and tech firms are also increasingly using VR to boost viewer engagement in live sports.

For instance, last year marked the first-ever 360-degree VR broadcast of the UEFA Champions League soccer final, which was aired by BT Group's BT Sport, Sweden-headquartered Modern Times Group and 21st Century Fox Inc.'s Fox Sports. Sky Deutschland also delivered the footage in VR in collaboration with Sony Corp.'s Playstation VR.

Henry Stuart, co-founder and CEO of VR studio Visualise, hailed the launch of the BBC app as a positive step for the VR industry, adding that the BBC's previous work with 360-degree journalism had been somewhat let down by the quality of production.

"The new generation of 360 cameras that have come out has massively resolved those problems. People are really getting to grips with how to make VR really well," Stuart said in an interview, adding that "all of that means that you are starting to get really quality stories."

However, the jury is still out on how long it will take for VR to achieve mainstream adoption and whether it stays clear of the 3D path, which largely failed to move the needle.

Sales figures for 2016, dubbed 'The Year of VR,' came in at $1.8 billion, a far cry from earlier forecasts of $5.1 billion, up from $660 million in 2015, according to a 2017 report by data firm SuperData Research.

Jason Jerald, co-founder and principal consultant at VR firm NextGen Interactions, argued that VR would avoid the 3D curve, which he described as merely a fresh take on an existing video format rather than a whole new medium.

"There are new VR apps coming out every day, ranging from indie filmmakers to major organizations," Jerald said. "But there needs to be a whole lot of successes and failures that can be learned from 3D and 360 video for VR to sustain itself for the long term," he added.

Limitations such as bulky headsets and the isolating experience have added to criticism of the technology.

"The [initial] problem with the VR industry is that although it was a really exciting technology, it was also expensive and not really developed enough," Stuart explained, comparing its early days with those of other much-hyped products such as Google Glass.

Adding to this are the steep price points of high-end VR headsets and technical hurdles consumers need to overcome in order to run VR software. While established players such as HTC Corp. have thrown their weight behind pricier headsets, other tech giants such as Alphabet Inc. have opted to deliver VR content both on mobile screens and at lower price points instead.

"Access and low cost entry is very important [to mainstream adoption]," Wangerin stressed.

A lot of initial adopters have typically used a Google Cardboard, a disposable VR headset and platform released by Google in 2014, or a fairly low cost headset in conjunction with their mobile, he added.

As a result, the gap in graphics capabilities between most hardware owned by consumers and the software required to power VR is narrowing, leading to gradual adoption which will likely be aided by efforts at the BBC.

Either way, observers maintain the industry will stay the course.

"VR is an entirely new way of experience content … that is a once in generation opportunity and because of this, VR can take a few hits … but people will come back to it," Stuart concluded.