Netflix, Hulu, more bringing video content to VR

At its Oculus Connect 2 event this morning, Oculus announced that a slew of popular video apps are coming to VR.

Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Tivo, Twitch and Facebook are all bringing video content to the new Samsung Gear VR headset, which is shipping in November (in time for Black Friday). The move signals just the latest example of how the media industry is building toward a new era for VR content, and follows news of Disney investing $65 million into VR startup Jaunt.

With new content coming to VR devices in droves, it seems as though the hurdle of capturing widespread interest with compelling experiences is rapidly shrinking. The other big obstacles are, of course, cost and comfort, but even those may be less of an issue in light of Samsung’s announcement. The new Gear VR (which is compatible with a Samsung’s 2015 mobile phone lineup) has been significantly overhauled, weighing 22 percent less than its predecessor and sporting a brand new, aggressively affordable price tag: $99.

Though videos have been available in Gear VR before (thanks to VR Cinema), this announcement is significant because it feels like a big bet on entertainment in VR. Samsung Gear VR isn’t going to revolutionize our living rooms just yet, but making vast amounts of high-quality, desirable video content available in a headset is unprecedented.

With Netflix and Hulu alone, a massive catalog of films and television shows is coming to VR. No longer will users need the video files (as was the case with VR Cinema), but they’ll be able to stream content, on-demand in a VR space. Oculus’s partnership with 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate will allow users to access even more films, like X-Men, Life of Pi, Gone Girl, and the Blair Witch Project. And Vimeo, though it boasts less content than YouTube, is famous for cinema-quality video and extremely well-made content.

Netflix VR

A visual diagram of how Netflix will approach VR with its new app for Samsung Gear VR.

To be clear, though, the video content coming from Netflix, Hulu and the others (with the exception of Facebook’s video efforts, which are spherical, 360-degree experiences) will not be immersive in nature. You won’t be able to look around scenes and it probably won’t feel like you’re “in” the movie.

Instead, those VR apps will presumably perform much like the current VR Cinema, which displays the video content on a huge movie or home theater-like screen in front of you (as shown in the image below from Hulu). So, while it won’t feel like you’re a part of the film, it will create a comfortable theater experience, whether you’re using the headset on a plane, in a hotel, on a train, or in the backseat of a car. There’s also the promise that some of these video streaming experiences will become more social, creating environments where you can sit with and interact with your friends in VR (as avatars, of course).

This move to bring a staggering amounts of video content into the VR space is essentially a vote of confidence in the entertainment experience in VR, which says a lot about how people are using Gear VR already, and very possibly speaks to the comfort level of the new headset. After all, betting on users spending hours inside of the headset watching content would be a fool’s errand if the headset feels like wearing a camcorder on your forehead.

Hulu VR shows off what it's new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Hulu VR shows off what it’s new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Responsive web design is coming to VR

Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR are all trying to get developers excited about building immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences. But as VR is capturing our imaginations, developers are left to wonder whether this new world will once again be dominated by competing and incompatible platforms, just the way mobile and desktop computing have been for so long.

Some developers think they’ve found a solution to this problem. “Remember the old ‘write once, run anywhere’ promise,” asked Google employee and VR enthusiast Boris Smus in a blog post this week, adding: “The web is the closest thing we have to fulfilling it.” Instead of building native apps that just work on one platform or even just one single VR headset, developers could build their VR experiences in HTML, and simply have them run in a browser.

This idea, commonly known as WebVR, is championed by a variety of developers and organizations, with one big proponent being Mozilla. The browser maker launched its own MozVR website for web-based VR experiences last year, and added VR support to the nightly (pre-alpha) builds of Firefox last month. There are also efforts to bring VR to Chrome, and Google launched a website highlighting VR Chrome experiments when it unveiled its own DIY Cardboard VR viewer last year.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

However, so far, these efforts aren’t compatible. “The latest VR wave has barely begun and already the web VR world is fragmented,” wrote Smus, adding: “Case in point, vr.chromeexperiments.com don’t work on Oculus, and mozvr.com demos don’t work in Cardboard.” Developers can now either wait until Google, Mozilla, Oculus and others agree on a common standard — or simply get their own cross-platform approach ready.

That’s exactly what Smus did this week by launching what he calls “responsive WebVR.” The idea: Make HTML-based VR work across headsets, and even without any headset at all. His inspiration? Responsive web design that automatically detects whether a user accesses a site with a desktop or a mobile browser, and optimizes the experience accordingly:

“Responsive web design promises content which automatically adapts to your viewing environment by using fluid layouts, flexible images, proportional grids; a cocktail of modern web technologies. Similarly, WebVR experiences need to work even without VR hardware.”

Smus’ WebVR boilerplate open source project allows developers to create HTML-based VR experiences that work with both Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, as well as with no VR headset at all, using a phone’s gyroscope to allow users to tilt the display to explore worlds. For now, it still requires developers to download a special build of Chrome, but developers should feel encouraged by the promise of cross-platform capabilities — and the potential of web-based experiences that work in an ordinary desktop or mobile browser as well as a VR headset is pretty exciting.

Samsung launches Milk VR service for its Gear VR headset

First there was Milk Music, then Milk Video, and now comes Milk VR: Samsung launched a new VR media service for its Gear VR headsets Tuesday, according to a CNet report. Milk VR offers Gear VR owners free 360-degree videos to explore with their headsets, and Samsung plans to update the service regularly with new content.

Samsung started selling its Gear VR headset earlier this month; the $200 headset is being billed as an “innovator edition” device catering to developers and early adopters. It can only be used with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone, which is being inserted into the headset as a display, but Samsung executives have said that they plan to make compatible versions for other Samsung phones in the future as well. Gear VR has been developed by Samsung in conjunction with Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Milk VR lives as an app on the Gear VR. There is also a website that seems to preview some of the content, but it doesn’t seem completely launched yet: MilkVR.com currently lets you explore a dozen or so 360-degree videos via compatible browsers.

Interestingly, the site also mentions options to upload user-generated content. In a document called the “Milk VR Format Guide,” it explains that users will be able to upload 360 degree spherical videos, which have to be encoded in MP4 and feature a minimum bit rate of 40Mbps. The document also gives some advice on how to shoot content suited for VR headsets, including this suggestion:

“Steady, stationary 360 cameras work best so people’s heads don’t feel like they are moving when they aren’t.”

Fyusion’s cool 3D photos could one day power user-generated VR

San Francisco-based computer vision startup Fyusion released a new version of its Fyuse app for iOS and Android Wednesday that allows consumers to record unique 3D photospheres that the company has dubbed “surround view.” The company believes that this could augment all kinds of things, ranging from selfies to fashion shows — but when I got a demo of the technology a few days ago, it also struck me as a great way to bring user-generated content to mobile VR.

What the Fyuse app is all about

Fyusion’s Fyuse app looks a lot like Vine or another other short-form video sharing app, complete with a stream of recordings, a shortcut for popular posts, hashtags, a profile, the ability to follow other users and a tab to record media. What’s different is the media itself: Fyusion users don’t record short video clips like on Vine, or photos like on Instagram, but a unique hybrid that can best be described as 3D photospheres.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hev76aHYV64]

To do so, users press a record bar like on Vine, and then move their phone either horizontally or vertically for a few seconds. Once the clip is recorded, Fyuse starts to render it on the device and then offers it up for preview, and eventually sharing on the platform. (Here’s a clip I recorded with the Android app last night.)

Fyusion looks a little bit like Vine - except you can scroll around in any "photo."

Fyusion looks a little bit like Vine – except you can scroll around in any “photo.”

Browsing through the videos shared on Fyuse you see a lot of this: People playing with very basic 360-degree explorations by circling small objects. Others use it as a kind of selfie replacement, and pan over faces (and inevitably also other body parts), or just record small motions, which turns the result in a weird mixture of photo and video.

But things start to really get interesting when people actually explore the places around them, because it adds an interesting sense of space and depth to what would otherwise just be a flat photo, or a very boring clip. Fyuse adds a sense of presence by letting viewers explore each recording by tilting their phones in the right direction, making use of the phone’s sensors to turn them into 3D viewers.

Not trying to be another Lytro

Fyusion CEO and co-founder Radu B. Rusu told me during an interview earlier this week that this emphasis on space was very much at the core of his company’s mission. “Photography captures a slice of space and time, movies capture time,” he said. Fyusion, Rusu explained, wants to instead capture space, and reinvent photography in the process.

However, Rusu and his team decided early on that they didn’t want to reinvent the camera. “Building another Lytro is a bad idea,” he told me. Instead, they took the camera that we already carry in our pockets, and added a whole bunch of vision recognition smarts to generate 3D scenes out of short clips. Rusu told me that the company initially experimented with rendering these recordings in the cloud, but but that doing it on the device was simply faster.

Fyusion is exploring a bunch of different angles for its app, including tags that can be attached to recordings, and partnerships with fashion labels that could be used to make this kind of medium more popular. But what struck me as one of the most interesting applications is VR, and especially mobile VR. Samsung just started selling its $200 Gear VR headset, which combines Oculus VR technology with Samsungs Galaxy Note 4 phone.

There’s no UGC for VR yet

Right now, Gear VR still has a big focus on gaming, but Samsung and others are also looking to turn the device into an immersive media consumption platform. Some studios and startups have begun to experiment with new types of media for these kinds of platforms, but what’s still missing is user-generated content.

Apps like Fyuse could one day fill that void, and Rusu said that his team has had conversations with a number of companies working on VR, including Magic Leap. “That particular space is very exciting to us,” he said.

Of course, Fyuse isn’t the only one working on 3D media capture. iOS app Bubbli has been offering similar functionality for some time, just to name one. But there is still a lot that could be done in this space. One example that came up in my conversation with Rusu was collaborative capture. Imagine multiple people at a concert recording clips with an app like Fyuse, which are then stitched together in the cloud to become an immersive 3D world.

Some of the shaky clips on Fyuse (including mine) may look they are far from that future, but to me, Fyuse seems to point a path towards a future in which VR media creation doesn’t require crazy expensive cameras, but just your phone in your pocket.