Is Virtual Reality the future of television? That’s probably not a question that keeps you awake at night, but our columnist Olly Mann is on the case…

As technology columnist for this auspicious publication, I get asked it a lot. Last month, I would have answered with an assured, arrogant “No!” 

To underline my point, I might have added a dismissive wave of my palm. 

I would tell you that this much-hyped technology will alter the world of gaming, for sure, and perhaps also change the way viewers experience, erm, “adult” entertainment±but if you’re asking me to imagine a world ten years hence, in which families slob around with individual plastic helmets on, each watching VR versions of Mob Wives, fuhgeddaboudit. 

 

Brave New Dawn

But then, lured by free croissants, I visited the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the annual shindig for Britain’s TV industry, and was taken aback by how much multinational moolah is being splurged on this brave new dawn. 

As the great and the good (and the not-so-good, who make Jeremy Kyle) entered the conference hall, they were met with no less than three VR displays. One was set-up by YouTube – perhaps to be expected, as they're a tech company. The second was a showcase for Sky—again, not massively surprising, as they have a track record of investing early in developing technology. But the third display—the biggest, in fact—was hosted by the BBC

That's right. Good old Auntie Beeb. On their stand, delegates could don an aforementioned ludicrous plastic headset (first removing their industry-standard square-rimmed spectacles) and enjoy such public-service delights as the Trooping of the Colour, a tour of the underground quarry at the Pantheon, or David Attenborough poking around a giant dinosaur's skeleton, all in glorious 360-degree vision. This, I admit, gave me pause. 

 

"If the BBC are chucking license fee money at capturing big-ticket events in surround vision, they are obviously anticipating that much of the general public, eventually, will watch it" 

 

So, I tried it out: CNN let me have a play with their demo headset, which featured immersive footage filmed at the International Space Station, at a bullfight in Spain, and amidst a protest outside a courtroom. Suddenly I didn't feel like I was merely watching a news broadcast, but rather that I was actually present at an event, liberated to look where I wished. 

 

Uncomfortable watching

I could turn side-to-side, up and down, and explore  exotic locales as if I was really there. It was impressive. It made me wonder, though, about the taste and decency issues this raises. Is it appropriate to film, say, the Syrian civil war, in a way that makes viewers feel like they're 'part of it'? 

At what point might that approach tip over into voyeurism, rather than news coverage; a luxury entertainment for those of us lucky enough to not actually live in a warzone? Viewers might feel guiltier still if they understood that to capture such images the filmmakers must rig up dozens of cameras—all rather more intrusive than a typical photojournalist's kit. Even if viewers are untroubled by such ethical discomfort, physical discomfort might cause other concerns. 

After just a few minutes with a VR headset on, my nose became squished, my eyes were straining, and I felt nauseous. Hardly a premium viewing experience. VR headsets also fail my Doofus Test, which goes like this: if you feel like a doofus when you wear a product, it will never go mainstream. 

For previous examples, see 3D TV (I don't want to put sunglasses on in my living room, I feel like a doofus), and smartwatches (I don't want text notifications flashing on my wrist, I feel like a doofus). Whilst donning a VR headset in a museum, art gallery or cinema feels fun and inclusive, doing it at home, in front of your children, makes you feel like a doofus. It fails the Doofus Test. 

However, they have a favourite saying in the TV industry: 'Content Is King'. (It's not as popular as 'can we edit this faster?', 'pass me the drugs' or 'can we get Holly Willoughby?', but it's right up there.) What it means is: viewers don't care what technology is used to deliver the good stuff they want to watch; they just want good stuff to watch. And the content being captured for VR is, as I discovered, really good stuff—an extra layer of detail that otherwise you'd never be able to experience. 

 

So, is VR the future of TV? 

I have a new answer to that question! It's this:

As more of us realise we can access VR footage on Facebook and YouTube by just using our smartphones, moving them around in our hands, without the need for silly headsets that make us feel like a doofus, it will become increasingly popular to explore VR on a 'second screen' at the same time as watching traditional TV, or shortly afterwards—rather like when you re-watch DVDs with the director's commentary turned on, or seek out a Wikipedia entry about your favourite TV show whilst you watch. 

Bet you're glad you asked. 

 

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