Why VR content investment in ‘a galaxy far, far away’ is just the beginning

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB studio recently released virtual reality content for the official Star Wars mobile apps, marking the first time the beloved sci-fi property has dabbled in VR content. It definitely won’t be the last, either.

The new experience, called Jakku Spy, is designed for use with Google Cardboard. Jakku Spy is an experience in installments, and today marks the first installment’s release. New pieces of the Jakku Spy puzzle will be uploaded every few days leading up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release on December 18.

The first VR experience itself is short: You’re treated to the signature Star Wars crawl, which informs you that you’re a spy for the Resistance on the desert planet Jakku where you’ll be on the lookout for enemy activity. Then, you find yourself standing atop a massive sloping sand dune, surrounded by high temperatures and hot, dry wind. There’s plenty to see, but you’ll scarcely have time to inspect before a speeder whizzes past, weapons ablaze. A moment later, a few bleeps and bloops grab your attention and you’ll turn to find a looking small, helpful, and very round BB-8 with a message for you.

That’s it, really. It’s just a taste. It’s a chance to step onto Jakku, to look around, to take ownership of your own perspective within a created world. And for now, that’s how VR exists in our world — the “real” one.

Jakku Spy is made to be intentionally limited and short. It’s supplemental. It’s a bite-sized experienced, contained in something that many of us have access to: a smartphone. It requires no special equipment, no high-powered computer, no costly headset and no wires. Google Cardboard was designed around the core principle of accessibility. Headsets are often around $30 (though special edition Star Wars Google Cardboard headsets themed after BB-8, R2-D2, Kylo Ren, and a Stormtrooper will be for sale in-store at Verizon retail locations) and most Google Cardboard apps and experiences themselves are free.

In many ways, Google Cardboard is the world’s necessary first step into VR. One of virtual reality’s biggest challenges on the road to mainstream acceptance is access. You can’t know how utterly different a VR experience is until you’ve tried it for yourself, and words simply fall flat. Trying to describe what a VR experience is like to someone who has never tried it is like trying to explain the way the wind feels or what it’s like to see the ocean for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, Google Cardboard isn’t anywhere close to the best VR has to offer us. It’s light years away from Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive and even Samsung’s Gear VR.

But this, Google Cardboard, is our necessary first step. And the involvement of what is arguably the world’s largest film franchise is nothing if not a clear indicator of the future of VR and the extent to which Disney and Lucasfilm understand that for now, it’s important that everyone be able to experience Jakku for themselves, without the aid of early adopter equipment.

There’s more coming in VR. More content. More headsets. More frames per second, more time behind the lenses, more sound. Just more. There will, inevitably, be a time when we have long, standalone experiences in the headset. The technology is progressing, the demand is growing. But for now, VR experiences are supplemental. They’re short, they add depth and immersion to existing IP’s and experiences. There are opportunities for VR storytelling, but for now, introducing viewers to familiar characters and worlds through a new lens has proven an effective first step into VR.

In the announcement this morning, Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media/VP, Advanced Development group said,

“ILMxLAB’s whole foundation and mission is about creating immersive entertainment, and that includes virtual reality. We think a lot of people are going to experience virtual reality in Google Cardboard for the first time with Jakku Spy. It’s a great opportunity because there’s this familiar content — characters and vehicles that you’ve seen in trailers — but you’re seeing it in a completely new way.”

Jakku Spy is meant to draw you in, to build anticipation for The Force Awakens, to introduce you to Jakku so that you feel like you know it and you must see it for yourself in theaters. And it’s working. Jakku Spy, much like most of the content in the Star Wars app, is meant to build the world of Star Wars. It isn’t long, and it isn’t standalone.

It doesn’t provide hours of interaction in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a start. And if the last paragraph of the announcement is any indication, that’s just what Jakku Spy is: Ultimately, Jakku Spy is the first step into a larger (virtual reality) world for Lucasfilm and Star Wars,” said the release. “And that’s something to be truly excited about.” 

NYT partners with Google to show newspaper subscribers the future

The New York Times is fast becoming an online publication that happens to print a daily paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s giving up on all the people who prefer to get the news from a stack of dead trees and dried ink instead of an app.
The paper has partnered with Google to offer that company’s virtual reality headset — which is really a glorified hunk of cardboard in which people can stick their smartphones into to get a taste of what VR can do — to its print subscribers. An app made to work with this headset will be available on November 5; the bundle of Google cardboard will be shipped to newspaper subscribers the following weekend.
This might convince some people to expand their subscriptions from the daily newspaper to the New York Times website and mobile applications. It’s also yet another way the publication will attempt to reward people who buy its paper, whether it’s by shipping this headset to subscribers or by giving newsstand customers access to its digital editions for a single day, without extra charge.
Both are win-win propositions for the Times. It recently celebrated reaching more than 1 million digital subscribers with a section dedicated to tooting its own horn. Increasing that number by convincing people to augment a print subscription with digital access or to sign up for the website after using it for a day will help the company’s revenues, image, and ability to thrive on the web.
But it seems like the New York Times is trying to keep its real, honest-to-god newspaper available for a while. That’s hardly a surprise: the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has reported that print revenues accounted for 70 percent of the New York Times’ revenues in 2014. That could fall as ad revenues in the physical paper fall, but the printed paper is still an important product.
Catering to people who buy that paper is supposed to keep them interested in purchasing the New York Times’ moneymaker. Last week it was about giving people limited access to the website as a reward for buying from the newsstand; this week it’s about giving people a glimpse into media’s future, with Google’s help. What else might the company do to continue printing its newspaper?
It’s clear that the New York Times cares about its digital subscribers. These last few weeks have shown that it cares about the physical paper, too, even if it’s not quite as important as it was when the publication didn’t even have a website.

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.

Facebook introduces 360-degree videos to drum up excitement for Oculus

Facebook has a plan to make its $2 billion acquisition of the Oculus virtual reality company make sense: introducing 360-degree videos to its service.
The company has partnered with Vice, GoPro, and other companies to bring a wide variety of videos, from movie trailers to documentaries, to the format. People can watch them on the Facebook website or via their Android devices “over the coming days,” while iPhone owners have to wait for a few months.
Facebook’s engineers partnered with their counterparts in the Oculus division to create this update, according the company.  This is, according to a report from the Verge, the first time the two divisions have worked together to introduce a new feature for the Facebook website.
The videos aren’t that fun to interact with on a laptop. They often paused when I meant to drag them around to change the view, and they were quite stutter-y. (I am prepared to blame this on the sluggishness of my rural Internet connection, but that doesn’t change how annoying it was to keep seeing that loading wheel.)
Still, there’s some obvious potential here — especially when you think about how these videos must play on a device like the Oculus, which is designed to support immersive content, instead of with a desktop browser and trackpad. Facebook is taking a baby step toward convincing people to give Oculus a try.
Oculus was conceived as a gaming device. Many of its competitors in the virtual reality space are focused on the same category. Coding a virtual reality game is one thing; buying the equipment necessary to create 360-degree videos, and dealing with all the hassles that introduces to the filming process, is another.
Supporting those videos could give Facebook the content it needs to convince non-gamers that virtual reality will matter to them in the short-term. (Insert the obligatory reference to the holodeck, or Louis CK’s bit about Verizon, here.) Games aren’t for everyone, but interactive videos set in the Star Wars universe or offering access to war zones are likely to appeal to a much wider audience.
Not that this type of video is exclusive to Facebook: YouTube introduced 360-degree videos to its service in March. But given Facebook’s efforts to convince media organizations to post directly to its service, whether it’s through Instant Articles or other means, it’s not hard to imagine publications favoring its site.
Then again, Google’s public efforts to enter the virtual reality market center on a few pieces of cardboard onto which people can mount their smartphones. Facebook is, at least in public, making a much bigger bet on the format. I suspect we’ll see more announcements like this one as Oculus establishes itself.

The new View-Master officially turns Google Cardboard into a toy

Mattel announced an update to its iconic View-Master handheld 3D-viewer toy in New York on Friday. The new View-Master was developed in conjunction with Google and its Cardboard project, and it turns the retro slide-viewer into a modern virtual reality headset.

Basically, the new View-Master is a plastic toy version of the Google Cardboard headset first revealed last June. Instead of inserting disks of stereoscopic images, as the original View-Master requires, you simply slip a supported smartphone into the headset, which will provide the gyroscopes, processor, and screen needed for immersive VR.

Besides the fact that it’s made from plastic, there’s going to be one major difference between Cardboard and the new View-Master: The main action button will be moved from the left-hand side to the right side of the headset, and has been turned into a “capacitive touch” lever, which better matches the historic View-Master lever you might remember from bygone years.


In fact, there are so few differences between Google Cardboard and the new Mattel View-Master that the demo I received was on a Google Cardboard headset with a mounted Nexus 5 phone, not the promised headset.

Mattel wanted to show off its new View-Master app, which will be available from Google Play this fall.  The View-Master app uses Google Cardboard APIs to produce immersive, interactive worlds, although much of the interactivity is still under development. Users will be able to buy experiences online, as well as in stores, in the form of “experience reels,” sold in packs of four for $15, which contain exclusive content you can’t download from online.


When in the View-Master app, you load an experience reel through a nifty augmented reality interaction. Taking advantage of your smartphone’s rear camera, the app passes whats in front of you to your screen. When your gaze falls on an experience reel, figures from that reel pop up into your line of vision. For instance, the San Francisco experience reel projects a polygonal Golden Gate Bridge. Simply click on the AR images and you’ll be transported into a 360-degree virtual world. I travelled to the moon as well as the time of the dinosaurs.

Mattel says there isn’t a social aspect to its worlds so parents can safely send their kids to the moon without worrying about the trolls that pop up online. The company is also conducting studies which certify that virtual reality is safe for kids as young as seven.

There are other Cardboard-compatible headsets not made from Cardboard. Other Cardboard headsets — like the recently-announced VR for G3 from LG — should be able to run the View-Master app as well, and the new View-Master will work with any Google Cardboard-compatible app. Mattel didn’t elaborate on which specific devices will work in the new View-Master, but noted it should be a lot of them, including big phones with 6-inch screens.

Mattel says that the new View-Master should be in stores by October, and will cost around $30 — not counting the smartphone you need to use it. Although Google Cardboard is largely exclusive to Android at the moment, Mattel and Google representatives confirmed that they’re working to bring it to iOS devices.

Although the new View-Master is directly aimed at kids (and nostalgic parents) its low price and wide availability might make it the Google Cardboard headset of choice for overgrown kids — early adopters and virtual reality enthusiasts.



LG announces a Google Cardboard–based virtual reality headset

LG’s high-end G3 smartphone was one of the first phones with a pixel-dense 2560 x 1440 display, and now LG is putting those extra pixels to good use. On Monday, LG and Google announced a new virtual reality headset for the G3, called VR for G3, that works with Google Cardboard.


Like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s first Cardboard headset, LG’s new virtual reality headsets merely mounts the phone and a pair of biconvex lenses in front of your face. The virtual reality experience uses the device’s built-in screen, sensors, and processors in conjunction with Google’s software to deliver an immersive experience.

According to LG, the VR for G3 headset is based on the original Google Cardboard blueprint, and it works with the Google Cardboard app as well as other Cardboard-compatible apps and games. VR for G3 headsets will be free with purchase of a G3 for a limited time as part of a promotion, which also includes a free version of the VR game Robobliteration.

Aside from the G3’s 538 pixels-per-inch screen, which helps when your eyes are centimeters away from the screen, another major advantage the G3 has over other devices for VR is that its sleep key is mounted on the backside of the smartphone, as opposed to on the righthand side for most other devices, meaning that the button remains accessible even when the handset is mounted. Perhaps LG was thinking about virtual reality even before Google Cardboard was announced.

LG says they haven’t decided whether the VR for G3 will be sold separately or what it would be priced at. The promotion starts this week in Korea, and is eventually headed to the United States.



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.

These headphones are packing a hidden pair of VR goggles

At first glance, the Glyph headphones from Redwood City-based startup Avegant look chunky, but there’s a good reason: there is a pair of screens inside the headband. When you slide the band over your eyes, you might look like Star Trek’s Geordi, but you’ll be watching video in an immersive environment.

Avegant’s been working this concept as well as screens that go up close to your eyes since a successful Kickstarter in 2013, and according to the company the Glyph uses “micromirror retinal projection” technology, which should help reduce eye strain.

Aside from the two 1280 x 720 panels for your eyes, the Glyph should be great on the ears as well. It will have active noise canceling and can connect to a music player wirelessly through Bluetooth. The headphones manage a three-hour battery life while watching video, so users will need to recharge the cans with a micro USB cable.


How do you pipe video in to the Avegant Glyph? It’s got an HDMI port, so you can plug a Roku or laptop computer into the headphones like you would a television. Avegant said that with the right cables, it should be able to display content from smartphones as well.

Headphones could be an interesting vehicle for virtual reality headsets in the future. Unfortunately, the Glyph is only a video headset for now. Although it has the requisite sensors to track the user’s movement, like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, the Glyph isn’t doing head-tracking at the moment. It also doesn’t have a camera, ruling out augmented reality applications.

For now, Avegant thinks its Glyph is a better device for watching video than a standard mobile device. “Where does [the movie] experience suck? Anytime you’re watching on your phone or tablet,”Avegant CTO and founder Allan Evans said to Re/Code. The company plans to target the Glyph at frequent fliers when it launches this fall for $599.



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.”