By Joseph Williams
Virtual reality streaming company NextVR has delivered live content from the NBA, NASCAR, the PGA and several other event organisers. It currently uploads about one event a week to its Web platform, often more. During the PGA Masters Tournament, for example, NextVR broadcasted live every day. Cofounder David Cole said the company has the “largest compressed audience of VR viewers on the planet,” though he declined to provide further detail, as he said the company only shares such information with its content partners. SNL Kagan recently caught up with Cole during the NAB Show in Las Vegas to discuss NextVR’s business, the future of virtual reality and how the technology could change content consumption.
SNL Kagan: Tell me how you started a VR company when it was so nascent, before there was money to be made?
David Cole: The company actually was founded as Next 3D in 2009 around a compression technology for 3-D televisions, and we built that with a number of partners, including Turner, and ultimately we worked with ESPN at ESPN 3D. The compression technology basically reduces the bandwidth required to carry a 3-D programme. Then, in 2012, we made a very aggressive early pivot to deliver to VR. So we’ve been doing this a long time, and the reason was, we very institutionally believe that VR is going to be the best place to play out stereoscopic content, that this is going to be the device, unlike 3-D television that ushers in a sea change. We built our entire VR pipeline on top of a mature broadcast pipeline that was already in place, that was already battle tested. We were up and running really fast, in late 2012/early 2013, which in VR was like duct tape-andcardboard prototype level.
We saw YouTube announce that they will now support live 360-degree video, which directly overlaps your product. How does this affect NextVR?
It doesn’t. You see that it’s being classifi ed almost uniformly as a gateway drug to VR. It’s not stereoscopic. It’s fundamentally a panorama that you look around, so it doesn’t provide a sense of presence. Whether it be YouTube 360 or Facebook [Inc.] 360 or even playing out on other devices besides VR, the way we look at those is that they’re excellent opportunities to promote a real VR experience. We might tease a VR experience and link from that YouTube content into a real VR experience, but what we do on our platform and what we deliver on another platform will sort of be the equivalent of selling a 3-D movie with a 2-D movie poster. In terms of what we do technologically, we absolutely could not do in any other architecture but our own. It’s a really complex architecture. It is something that we control it end to end. You have really strong video quality compared to your competitors, and you’re building an impressive content stream, but there is still room to improve and expand.
What’s going to be the tipping point that really brings VR into the mainstream?
It’s going to be a convergence of a number of things, and one of them is the device resolution itself. Almost 100% of the audience is seeing our content through smartphones right now. This will be the last generation of devices that are using displays that really weren’t built for VR, if you look at what’s coming from the fi ve major manufactures in the display space building purpose-built displays for VR with high pixel densities to be integrated in mobile and standalone devices. This is going to change the ecosystem. There is a race to the top in terms of VR display quality and hardware. You’re not seeing the market fl ooded with inferior hardware. Form factor, resolution, comfort, latency: All those are getting better by orders of magnitude. The second thing is content density. If you get your shiny new Gear VR, in a long dedicated weekend you can kind of exhaust the content, but what we do makes your device shiny and new with every live event. That phenomenon has to increase. You have to be able to have a consumptive relationship with it. Multiplayer experiences have the same kind of potential, because they’re always new.
So what’s the endgame here? Do you see VR replacing the traditional video medium, or is it just another platform competing for consumers’ entertainment time?