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VR’s Big Surprise: 3-D Worlds Have Little Appeal

More people care about movies and TV shows than immersive 3-D games.
September 15, 2016

Companies such as Samsung and Facebook’s Oculus promote their virtual-reality headsets by highlighting awe-inspiring 3-D experiences for gaming and virtual travel. But one of the most popular activities among early adopters of the technology is less novel: watching 2-D movies and TV.

“It’s been a surprise on the VR circuit because much of the work is driven by people coming from the gaming world, who are fairly dogmatic about what VR means,” says Anjney Midha, founder of the San Francisco venture capital fund KPCB Edge. Figuring out what people want to do with headsets is crucial if companies such as Facebook are to make the devices widely popular.

Midha says consumer interest in a new way to view 2-D content shouldn’t be surprising given the popularity of watching movies and TV on mobile devices with small screens. A 2-D video viewed using a VR headset can fill your visual field as if you were watching on a giant home cinema screen, even if you’re in fact in a cramped dorm room or the middle seat on a budget flight. Virtual-reality apps from Netflix and Hulu even surround their 2-D content with a virtual theater, room, or beach scene to enhance the experience. Flat content is less likely to make you uncomfortable or nauseous, as 3-D content can.

The Expanse headset uses a smartphone to provide the experience of sitting in front of a giant home cinema screen.

In China, where many companies have launched relatively low-cost mobile VR headsets, watching movies and TV is their primary use, says Midha. He predicts that viewing conventional videos is what’s most likely to drive mass adoption of VR hardware in the next few years. Airlines are already expressing interest in giving passengers headsets as a way to offer better in-flight TV and movie viewing than is possible with seat-back displays, he says.

Companies that make VR headsets don’t provide detailed data on what people are using them for. But Netflix’s app, which offers only 2-D content, is listed as one of the most popular for the Samsung Gear VR, which uses a smartphone as its screen. A 2-D video viewer, VR Cinema, is one of the most popular apps for headsets built around Google’s cheap mobile VR technology, Cardboard, with over a million downloads.

Despite their focus on interactive 3-D experiences, some large headset companies have shown signs that they recognize flat video’s importance. Hulu’s app is bundled with the Oculus Rift headset, for example (it also offers some immersive 360° video content). Oculus CTO John Carmack says the company worked with Netflix on its VR app because it was needed if Gear VR was to be successful.

Meanwhile, Sony is betting that flat content will be just as important as the 3-D kind to its virtual-reality headset launching next month. The company has been promoting the device’s “cinematic mode,” which displays conventional movies and TV or games on a large virtual flat screen. TV and movie content could help buy time for Hollywood companies trying to figure out what really works in VR.

Netflix’s app for Samsung’s Gear VR headset lets you watch movies and TV in a virtual living room.

William Carter, a cofounder of startup headset maker Expanse, says there’s room for products focused entirely on 2-D content. When you slot your smartphone into his company’s forthcoming headset, you can watch Netflix and Hulu or play conventional 2-D mobile games. The $80 device can’t simulate depth. But it offers significantly higher resolution than VR headsets, because it doesn’t need magnifying lenses or a separate display for each eye.

Midha says that designs like Expanse could be successful for a time but will ultimately fade away when the displays in VR headsets capable of 3-D improve. Carter says his company plans to adapt its product line to take advantage of new technologies as they become affordable.

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