At the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, Samsung announced plans to open a virtual reality film studio at one of their office spaces in New York City. (The studio will share floorspace with a Samsung marketing team.) With a similar announcement from Oculus at last year’s Sundance, Samsung’s move comes as no surprise — especially taking into consideration the Samsung Gear VR’s stellar sales figures. The new studio is primed to boost the still-young platform’s somewhat slim immersive video offerings, and, given the involvement of a marketing team, to pique the interest of the as-of-yet unconverted. All of which begs the question: is this the year VR finally goes truly mainstream?
If Samsung’s aforementioned sales figures aren’t enough of a confirmation, the hardware itself should be. The Gear VR headset, released this past November, is the mass-market model of the Korean brand’s headset, of which two developer models were made available December 2014 and March 2015. The device works with four Samsung phones — Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge and the Galaxy S6 Edge+ — using their screens to project virtual images through the headset’s two 96-degree lenses and into the user’s eyes. The Gear VR’s motion-tracking technology is powered by Oculus (yes, the company behind the Oculus Rift), which may seem a bit odd — why are two competitors helping each other?
In truth, the Oculus Rift and the Gear VR aren’t in competition with one another; they’re two different animals. The Gear VR serves as a gateway into virtual reality for beginners, offering innovative new games, experiences and 360-degree video content at an affordable price ($99). The Oculus Rift is undoubtedly more expensive ($600+), but it offers, with its two integrated OLED displays, much higher-quality visuals and the ability to play older PC games, like the iconic Half-Life 2, in a newly immersive way.
Of course, just as not everyone who likes movies will shell out for a mammoth home-theater setup with all the fixin’s, not everyone who’s into VR will need to make the jump to the $600 Oculus. And it’s hard to believe that the phone-into-headset model would fall away when 64 percent of the US population own smartphones, assuming it can at some point cross over to non-Samsung devices. VR will undoubtedly reach mass mainstream adoption; the exact form it will take is still a little up in the air.
Content will play a deciding factor in the timing of mass adoption, which of course falls in line with the opening of Samsung’s studio. But branded Samsung content will only do so much. For one, VR needs its Great Train Robbery — a film that proves the artistic viability of the medium. For this reason, Sundance opened the New Frontier program, an effort to foster young and old filmmaking talent in a way that allows them to take full advantage of the new technology. But new, accessible 360-video technology isn’t quite saturating the market yet, and if 360 video in general is to have as big an audience as YouTube or Netflix, its recording equipment needs to be as readily available as a camera phone.
Current offerings for 360 video are sparse, but promising. Lytro spearheaded the new market in November 2015 when they introduced the Lytro Immerge, “the world’s first professional Light Field solution for cinematic VR.” The device records light in a way that seamlessly blends live action and computer graphics, allowing users to roam freely in a digitally reproduced environment. And earlier this month, Nikon announced the KeyMission 360, a 360-degree action camera that’ll allow people to share more immersive videos than ever. These cameras dictate the two driving forces behind the oncoming wave of immersive content: Hollywood-level studios that can invest in industry-grade tech like the Lytro Immerge, and the smaller powers, be they indie studios or hobbyists (read: both Sundance types and action-cam zealots) for whom the KeyMission 360 is nice and attainable.
As it stands, VR fills several niches: dazzling video games, boundary-pushing journalism, revolutionary medical therapy, immersive comedic sketches and more. But as a new tool for media consumption, it needs to fill as many niches as the internet at large. What we’ll see in the next year is several VR hardware and software producers making efforts, like Samsung’s, to get people excited; if it works, then that’ll invigorate a number of eager new content producers, investors and more — whose work will eventually give us enough VR content to stay excited.