Live VR/360° Video Gets Social

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Virtual reality and 360° video may provide the "best seat in the house" but it will be a fail for live sports if the experience of almost being there can't be shared. While multiple live streaming VR experiments are taking place, from the UEFA Euros to the Rio Olympics, developers are frantically trying to solve the issue of connecting the experience socially among fans. NextVR, arguably the leading producer of live VR,  is on the verge of announcing a partnership with a social media platform.

"There is a prevailing view that VR is isolating but sports viewing is often shared," says Dave Cole, co-founder, NextVR. "We have a partnership with a social communications platform which will be our first foray into bringing communication with peers and friends into the virtual space."

The product is in beta test and primed to be announced ahead of a "marquee event late summer" by early September. It is likely that the initial form of social interaction will be via avatar.

"We plan to integrate APIs from gaming platforms like the PS4 into the the NextVR platform," says Cole. "It makes more sense for users to create one avatar and have the ability to port that to our platform, or other virtual spaces, than to have start from scratch each time. One idea is for users to invite friends inside a virtual lobby where they can assemble and share commentary on the experience."

Connecting friends and live experiences through VR is the long term goal of Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg. Facebook's Social VR team has demonstrated how "animated mannequins" of users/friends might look when augmented with a live view using Oculus Rift.

Other live streaming sports VR developers are working hard to offer at least the first stage of real-time social interaction.

LiveLikeVR, which has been paid to test its VR production pipe by ATP Media and Sky among others, is to launch live sharing capability later this year. It will also use avatars to represent a fellow LiveLikeVR user sitting adjacent to another in LiveLike's virtual lounge and watching a game.

"When you put on a headset and launch our app, then immediately around you is the VIP suite is CG," says Andre Lorenceau, founder and CEO of LiveLikeVR. "On the right or left of the couch is an avatar of a person—which in the early stages of this development will be a representation of a person. It will be just head and shoulders, and eventually hands, but it's not intended to be hyper-real. What really makes it feel as if they are there with you is localised audio. If you're watching a game and your friends are talking to you [via head mounted device MD mic] it will sound as if they are a couple feet away on your right. If you turn you will see them and they will sound like they are in front of you. The sound of someone talking next to you changes according to where you are looking and this makes an extremely powerful feeling of being present with someone."

One issue is to synchronise the live video stream of the game with the audio component of "friends" speaking. "We are fixing these problems," he says.

Greenfish Labs, which live streamed the PIAA track and field event, college football, and Pennsylvania's ice hockey team the Hershey Bears in 360° video, is working on ways to incorporate picture-in-picture within the virtual view, plus live chat and realistic audio.

"We have a sound team working on developing our own plugin and software to make the audio sound realistic in the VR environment," says Greenfish CEO and founder Ben Duffey.  "We have a 8-mic audio set up, which records spatial audio at a live event and software which translates that to different areas of the video, so that as your head moves around the video the audio will relocate accordingly. You can't just have stereo sound—when you turn your head you need to be able to hear those sounds accurately."

Gaming platform VREAL is in beta with an attempt to enable any number of viewers to experience esports in virtual reality. "The future of gaming is VR, and the future of VR is social," says CEO Todd Hooper. "The core of our technology is to re-render games in realtime on each specific machine. That enables a viewer to feel that they are inside the game and allows streamers to interact with their viewers. Streamers will be able to 'pass the mic,' interact with physical gestures, or even hand off digital items from in game to the viewers."

Hooper adds that this level of interaction is technically not possible with live action video. 

NextVR Plans Expansion

Separately, NextVR has revealed its "domestic and international expansion" plans. This includes "talking with the largest live production companies on the planet" about adopting NextVR technology. These include outside broadcast production suppliers including NEP and Game Creek Video.

"The aim is to provide expertise our VR production vehicle as a reference platform for producers rather than partnering them on building trucks," says Cole. "We can showcase how live VR streams can be achieved."

The NextVR mobile facility captures 4K video from 8 cameras per rig with capacity for ten rigs. Per rig, that's 24,000 pixels horizontally and 6000 pixels vertically at 60hz. This totals 6 terabytes a second of raw data.

"A typical Netflix [HD] stream is 8Mbps, and we can deliver full 360 broadcast quality stereo video at less than that," claims Cole.

NextVR is busy with a five-year pact to test out VR with Fox Sports and also signed a deal to live stream VR music events for Live Nation. Cole says monetization is already here.

"Sponsor lift is already happening," he says. Lexus sponsored Fox Sports VR streams from the U.S. Open, for example. "We will test subscription and pay-per-view models this year. You will see a pay-per-view product [from a broadcaster] launching soon."

While NextVR's technical edge is in the compression technology first devised for broadcasting live stereoscopic 3D, its business model is in content, specifically in attracting as wide a user base as possible to its NextVR portal.

"We don't syndicate to other networks for both business and technical reasons," Cole explains. "We are building a platform with partners for consumers to come to and watch VR. We are highly incentivised to maintain content on our platform since that is how the company will be valued."

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