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Sky Launches Into VR
Sky is committed to seeing VR succeed where 3D failed, and has established the 10-person Sky VR Studio to spearhead innovation and content creation

Broadcaster Sky is powering ahead with VR content production in much the same way it spearheaded the ultimately failed drive to 3D TV.

Sky VR Studio is producing more than 20 individual films, across a range of Sky content—from major cultural events in news to sporting events—for distribution over a free-to-download Sky VR app.

The 10-person team is led by executive producer Neil Graham and creative director Richard Nockles.

Sky original VR content is being distributed in the app launched for Android, iOS, and Oculus Rift, alongside videos from Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. The originals—which include Giselle, a doc with English National Ballet's principal Tamara Rojo—must be 3-4 minutes long and offer a unique perspective that would not be possible from a traditional linear broadcaster.

[For a broader look at trends in VR development, see our companion article "VR's Two-Tiered Takeoff"]

Nockles cites as an example working with Formula 1 commentator and pundit Ted Kravitiz for a VR tour of the pit lane in Barcelona ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 season.

"We trained him in the morning and sent him out with a 360° cam on a gyro-stabilised carbon fibre pole. The nature of 360° means you lose the pole and you just see him walking which is an incredibly intimate experience of a sports venue especially one that gets into areas where visitors can't go like the mechanic's garages and pit lane."

The 3-minute documentary "Ted's Notebook" received 1.6 million hits in 24 hours on Facebook.

Nockles is also workshopping several different scenarios for scripted content, such as confrontations or emotional scenes, to set out the best production techniques to use with the format.

"We want to develop a language for VR to help producers raise their game and help the industry get to the stage we all want."

Nockles' company Surround Vision was one of the first to begin working with Sky and he has since been seconded to the broadcaster to shape its VR output. He is also on the BAFTA VR Associate Advisory Group.

"We've started experimenting with VR six years ago using Ladybug 360° cameras from Point Grey Research which were a real pain to use, unreliable and bulky and tethered to the recording device but also amazing given the grounding this gave us in working out some of the issues shooting VR at such an early stage," he explains.

He says Sky VR documentaries are storyboarded but also rely on good fortune—as you would for any documentary. One such piece of luck was having the single VR camera in the right corner for Anthony Joshua's ultimate punch in his title fight last April which stopped opponent Charles Martin "a metre away from our camera."

Sometimes success is a matter of luck, as when Anthony Joshua's ultimate punch in his title fight last April stopped opponent 
Charles Martin a metre away from a Sky VR camera.

The immersive allure of VR means directors are obsessed with the proximity of the cameras, and how close they can get to the action so they can create that feeling of intimacy.

"As content producers, we need to recalibrate our brains for VR, add more of a theatrical style of production," he says. "We're effectively becoming theatre producers."

When it comes to live, with which Sky is also experimenting, there are some key issues to address. One of them is avoiding motion sickness for viewers watching fast action, of Formula 1 cars or cyclists.

While NBA Digital in the U.S has begun streaming one live basketball game a week in VR via the NBA League Pass package (available on the NextVR app and viewed on Samsung Gear VR headsets) Sky and pay TV rival have yet to follow suit.

This is partly because soccer, the most popular sports property that both own rights to, doesn't translate well to VR. The distance of the rig from action on the pitch is the main impediment.

"The intimacy is lost but your motivation for viewing is different," he says. "Most football fans go to watch a game of chess happening in front of them. When I go see a game I love watching the movement across the entire pitch on and off the ball. A lot of the time you can't see that the way soccer is conventionally covered but with VR you can."

To counter this, Sky is experimenting with a live solution where viewers are able to play with content by "pushing in" to a feed and switching from 360 to traditional feeds. "This becomes more of a playful experience," says Nockles. "It's all about testing to see how audiences like to engage."

Sky's strategy is around promotion and building awareness for the technology and also testing the water with different genres/ styles.

"Sky has always been a leading player forefront of new tech and innovation – not all of which have been successes," says Michael Boreham, analyst, Futuresource Consulting. "VR is no different in that respect. Given the potential VR presents as an immersive medium for content and as viewers begin to test and possibly opt for different viewing screens and methods, Sky needs to ensure it's able to engage on them."

The next few years will see a lot of experimentation in production techniques and content creation by the majors and independent content companies alike in order to develop compelling content for VR. However, says Boreham, Hollywood studios are unlikely to release blockbuster titles in VR as this would not be suitable for the theatrical sector and they would not want to jeopardise their theatrical revenues. "A separate non-VR version would be required, effectively needing two productions to be shot, resulting in increased production costs. Short-term it is expected that VR activity by the Hollywood studios will be limited to companion pieces to the main feature, with content being made available via Electronic Sell Through or transactional VoD."

David Beckham shooting a VR feature for Sky VR Studio