The ITU (International Telecommunications Union) has raised hopes that the first preliminary standard covering VR (Virtual Reality) will be set before the end of 2016. This follows a recent meeting in Geneva comprising some of the main standards bodies in TV, including JPEG, MPEG, DVB and EBU (European Broadcasting Union) as well as the ITU itself.
Although somewhat Euro-centric this meeting identified the urgency of setting standards for VR soon to avoid momentum being doused by the flood of incompatible systems.The Ultra HD field at first suffered from a similar fate, bringing the risk of a backlash from consumers who had bought early TV sets described as “4K ready” only to find now that they will not be able to enjoy the full experience of pictures delivered at HDR (High Dynamic Range) as well as higher frame rates and increased color gamut. This has now been fixed with the release of the Ultra HD Premium logo incorporating HDR, but Virtual Reality is at a much earlier stage in its evolution and is also open to varying definitions. The one widely agreed element seems to be that VR should provide a full 360 degree surround view, although in some cases it is only 180 degrees.
The Geneva workshop hosted by the ITU established VR signaling as the initial priority to establish a framework for interoperability between different systems and components of the ecosystem, with a target of October 2016 for the first set of requirements.
The ITU admitted however that at this stage it was still unclear exactly how VR would evolve and therefore that it was too early to set out a roadmap for definitive standards including display. There are many options on the table for VR structures, and uncertainty over which ones will be deliverable or consumers will be willing to pay for.
The VR field is also haunted by the specter of 3D, which was in some ways a precursor and yet proved a dismal flop. But this may have been a case of too little too early and VR can be seen as being a more substantial step on the road to immersive TV that will be more compelling. Indeed many in the field believe that like 3D VR needs to be ‘stereoscopic’, but must go further, perhaps to avoid the need for goggles and also the problems of eye fatigue and headaches associated with 3D TV.
Sky is among broadcasters experimenting with Virtual Reality
One solution mooted at the Geneva meeting was the creation of 3D images through use of “light fields”, which combine computation and multiple lens arrays to create a sense of 3D in a 2D image with ability to manipulate focus and depth of field after the pictures have been taken. Perspective can be shifted and parts of the image can be deliberately put out of focus to vary the sense of depth and relative position. The JPEG standards groups has been appointed to examine possible standardization of light fields for VR, given evidence this results in much less eye fatigue than conventional 3D video.
The Geneva workshop also discussed new evidence over the maximum time viewers are comfortable watching VR narrative content, which at present appears to be about 20 minutes. This is of some concern to the field given that it would restrict its use for many full length sports broadcasts as well as movies and drama, although again new technologies such as light fields might increase that time.
Despite the caveats and negative associations with 3D, Virtual Reality is clearly gaining momentum within the TV field, helped by the publicity given by Facebook and other leading players. Broadcasters too are relatively positive, at least if evidence from an EBU Production Technology Seminar earlier this year is any guide. Broadcasters were asked to choose whether VR was an 'opportunity', 'threat', or 'gimmick' and most voted for the former.
But that view may change in the absence of progress towards standards. However, much more than 3D, VR is being propelled by the gaming industry, which relies on the same components such as cameras and headsets. For this reason market analysts are predicting that the VR market will explode over the next few years. According to IDC, worldwide shipments of VR hardware will soar from a low base to 9.6 million units in 2016 and generate revenues of $2.3 billion, but this will rocket almost 70 fold to 64.8 million units and over $100 billion revenue by 2020.
If true such extraordinary growth is bound to carry broadcasting along in its slip stream. Indeed already we are finding broadcasters experimenting, with the BBC trying VR with its popular Strictly Come Dancing, FOX with Golf, Sky News for footage of refugee camps, Dutch broadcaster AvroTros for the movie 'Flatliners' and German broadcaster ZDF for a documentary on volcanoes. Then CBS recently broadcast a virtual reality stream allowing viewers to pan around the studio and switch cameras. This involved a 180 degree view provided with equipment from Voke VR, which was used for live coverage of the NCAA Final Four Semifinals and National Championship in partnership with CBS.