Virtual Reality's Distribution Frontier Is Heating Up

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

One of the more interesting things about virtual reality is that it is going to be the first consumer medium whose distribution platform is native to the internet.

Oh sure, websites are native to the internet, but the web pages of which they consist are riffs on print pages with embedded elements. We saw plenty of those during the CD-ROM era of multimedia efforts. While every other form of media--from music to video games to movies--have developed distribution ecosystems to either supplement or replace their traditional channels VR is starting online by default. Even "out-of-home" VR attractions are powered by networked solutions.

A lot of the lessons of what does and doesn't work in internet distribution have already been learned. That's true if we're talking about streaming services like Spotify and Netflix or App Stores like Apple's. The long term smart money is on whoever can establish strong content distribution platforms for VR.

There will be those who will try and own the ecosystem from top to tail the way Apple does with the iPhone. It's been a lucrative path for them to say the least, but it's not the only one. Some of the current tension in the high-end at-home Head Mounted Display market comes from the battle between Oculus and HTC/VALVE to have the superior store for game content. HTC/VALVE entered the battle with a leg up: they had Steam, which is pretty much the personal computer video game marketplace. Oculus has Facebook's cash reserves and reach into a billion-plus internet users lives in their back pocket.

Who controls the hearts and minds of early adopters of high-end HMDs is important, but it is far from the only battleground. Games and other deeply interactive experiences will have enough variables within their technical requirements that the distribution platforms for them will likely see a tighter integration with the hardware makers. Or to put it in plain terms: platform exclusive games won't be going anywhere for a few years, if ever. Sorry, fellow gamers.

Straight up 360 video experiences, on the other hand--whether they are music videos, feature length films, or live streams of unfolding events--will benefit from some cross-device standards.

Which brings me around to Jaunt.

At the Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA) Expo this past month I had the chance to sit and talk for a while with Miles Perkins' Jaunt's Vice President Marketing Communications (see disclosure below) about what the company was up to with its distribution platform now that they are starting to open it up to content creators.

Now if you follow the VR space you probably know Jaunt as the makers of the Jaunt One camera, although Perkins will be the first to point out that Jaunt is not a camera company. Nevertheless it was Jaunt's early previews of 360 video displayed using Oculus prototypes that helped get the tech press excited about live-action VR video in the first place.

Since that point, Jaunt has been developing along a few different lines--both as a content studio and distribution partner for other makers. They're not the only ones who have been stirring the waters in this way. Venice, CA-based Wevr comes to mind, and Chris Milk's Within (formerly VRSE) have both been experimenting with content and distribution strategies, partnering with established media companies to create VR experiences and building distribution channels.

Jaunt and Within both have the two most reliable and easy to navigate VR video apps currently available for the iPhone. When it comes to introducing the possibilities inherent in VR to those who aren't obsessed with tech I've often found myself reaching for a music video from Within or the report from Syria that ABC News produced which can be found on Jaunt's app. These works quickly demonstrate, on hardware millions already carry, the transformative power of VR presence.

Of late Jaunt has been making some moves to attract VR video creators into using their growing platform for distribution. For one, they're partnering up with Dolby to push the Atmos toolset for VR audio. Dolby's brand means something to anyone who cares about what goes into their ears, and that kind of connection brings marketing benefits. All of which is fine, but what's under the hood makes the real difference when it comes to a platform.

That's why Jaunt's push to have their cloud services work not only with their own cameras but with the Nokia Ozo which was unleashed earlier this year is significant. So too is the technical wizardry that shifts the transcoding of VR video for the different playback devices--a process which has up to this point taken forever--onto the shoulders of that cloud platform.

"You watch fourteen windows (open up and) transcode into every platform," Perkins said. "I've seen some people tear up when they see that."

While the transcoding deals with a headache that content makers have, Jaunt's platform is also trying to solve a discovery-related headache. The company is using what Perkins refers to as "deep links" which create one URL for a VR video, shifting the sorting out of which display version should be fed to the end user to the platform. So instead of navigating within a site or device and having to pick out which of a half dozen or more versions of a piece--for Oculus, iPhone, Vive, Gear, etc.--it will be possible to just click a link and go. Just like we do with everything else online these days.

That kind of ease of use on the consumer end is going to be critical for mainstream adoption of VR--or augmented reality or mixed reality for that matter--to take off.

Perkins has been working with film wizards for his entire career. Prior to joining Jaunt he was part of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. A fair number of former Lucas employees joined up with Jaunt after the Disney acquisition, and the film industry savvy the company has reads at a distance.

Will that be enough to become a dominant player in the VR video realm? That's a real question as the technology and marketplace head towards a tipping point. Adoption of VR technology isn't happening in an American media echo chamber, but is a globalized phenomenon. Perkins told me that Jaunt already sees half of its traffic coming from outside the United States, and to him "that is awesome."

He was also quick to note that China's VR market is advancing rapidly, something we've written about before. While the nature of what VR video content will catch fire in a given international marketplace may vary from place to place, the basic technical standards which apply will end up converging. We've seen that before in audio and video and there is little reason to expect it to be otherwise with VR video.

Those who are ready to solve these problems for the people making content--no matter where in the world they reside--are entering VR's next phase from a position of strength. Gathering a cadre of creators to those platforms--as Jaunt, Within, and Wevr are all doing--will help build an audience. Will that be enough for the first to market VR platform developers to withstand the full force of Silicon Valley's giants? Can there be a YouTube or a Netflix of VR?

When Silicon Valley meets Hollywood all kinds of strange things happen. It's only going to get stranger.

Disclosure: Miles Perkins' father, Arnold Perkins, has long been a member of the board of Youth Radio, the parent organization of Turnstyle. We entered into our conversation at VRLA without foreknowledge of this tie, which only became apparent after trading notes about augmented reality in the form of Pokemon Go around Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA. Inasmuch as it changed the nature of the conversation after that, as such things do, it gave us shortcuts for comparing points of view.

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