The Virtual Reality Frontier: How Publishers Are Testing (& Monetizing) VR
At the end of 2015 virtual reality made international headlines with the first large-scale commercial release of VR headsets. Samsung began selling Gear VR in November of 2015, Facebook released its Oculus Rift in March 2016, and HTC’s Vive came out the following April. Since this wave of VR devices hit the market, pundits have been counting down the days until VR technology reaches widespread adoption among consumers.
But according to a recent Fortune article, which released estimated sales data for HTC’s Vive, the revolution is not quite here. Fortune estimates that about 100,000 Vive headsets have been sold, based on customer usage of Vive games on Steam. While that does not make the VR headset a flop, those sales are well below some analysts’ predictions.
So Should Publishers Be Diving into This New Technology?
The short answer is, yes. While many analysts anticipate VR will not reach a tipping point in consumer adoption for another six to eight years, it’s worth publishers getting their feet wet and experimenting with these new formats. Barriers to entry like high costs and complex production are decreasing. VR cameras are becoming less expensive. GoPro’s recently released Odyssey VR rig costs $15,000, while a similar rig that Nokia launched in 2015 is priced at $60,000. Advances are also being made in production processes. In order to create the 360-degree view of a VR experience, producers must stitch together different camera angles, which can be time consuming and complex. Some new tools are emerging, like CARA VR and SkyBox Studio that provide templates to streamline this process. Thanks to these developments, VR will soon be more accessible to both consumers and content producers.
And many publishers are already diving into VR and the less expensive 360-degree video. 360-degree video fixes the viewer in a single spot and allows her to look around. Pure virtual reality, on the other hand, allows the viewer to move through an environment. Time Inc., Condé Nast, and the New York Times have made some big bets on VR and 360-degree video, and some of these publishers are already turning a profit. VR technology is presenting new opportunities for publishers to create content, connect with consumers, and monetize, which cannot be ignored.
Following are a few of the ways that publishers have already begun using these technologies -- most of which it’s important to note are strictly 360-degree video experiences. I expect we will see many more publishers throw their hat into the VR ring over the next few years.
NYT Tapped VR Profits in 2015
The New York Times was one of the earliest publishers to test VR, creating two immersive, 360-degree experiences for its VR app in 2015 -- “The Displaced,” which followed the stories of three children uprooted by the global refugee crisis, and “Take Flight,” a short film featuring Hollywood stars floating into the night sky. Partnering with Google, The New York Times Magazine distributed 1 million Google Cardboard VR headsets to magazine subscribers with its November 8th issue. The NYT launched its app, “NYT VR” that same week. Editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein said it was the most successful app launch in the history of The New York Times.
In January, CEO Mark Thompson told Beet.TV at the Consumer Electronics Show that VR is profitable at the NYT, and that he expects even greater profits in 2016. GE and Mini sponsored the app launch and have been featured in a number of branded VR videos. Part of the appeal for advertisers is that the NYT already has a large VR audience, thanks to the Google partnership, explained Thompson. “Most people who talk about VR don’t have a way of actually getting VR in front of consumers,” he said.
Time Launches a VR App “LIFE VR”
In May Time Inc. announced at Content NewFronts in NYC its new VR app “LIFE VR”, which was created through development partnerships with a number of VR companies including NextVR, Framestore, and EVR. The app is a revival the Life brand, which traditionally offered readers a glimpse of the world through high quality photojournalism. Now LIFE VR aims to take that visual storytelling to the next level, sharing 360-degree stories from across Time’s brand. Time Inc. said in a press release that it will be releasing several VR projects this year.
Condé Nast to Release VR Series “Invisible”
Condé Nast announced it’s first major push into VR in February. The publisher is developing a six-part VR action series called “Invisible” in partnership with production company 30 Ninjas. Both Samsung and Jaunt VR have partnered with Condé to distribute this series and the release date is slated for September.
At NewFronts 2016 president of Condé Nast Entertainment Dawn Ostroff, described the series as completely immersive, a show that consumers can view a different way each time they watch. Ostroff added that Condé will continue to invest in VR and 360-degree video content. “Clearly, VR is going to be a big part of our studio going forward,” said Ostroff at NewFronts.
Education Publishers Bring VR to the Classroom
Both Pearson & Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced partnerships with Google recently to bring virtual reality field trips to the classroom using Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions. The field trips are aligned to Pearson and HMH curriculum and allow students to explore famous landmarks, jungles, oceans, and a slew of places they likely would never see in real life.
These types of VR experiences have implications for B2B and special interest publishers who create educational and experiential content for their readers already. Imagine creating a VR educational webinar for medical professionals, or offering a VR house tour for design enthusiasts. There are VR applications for all types of publishers.