At the time of writing, the process of disseminating VR content to users is relatively complex: technically, strategically, and from the user-experience perspective. And the decision-making factors interrelate. There are multiple types of playback equipment and their different capabilities affect how the content works.
The vast majority of VR content is distributed through curated content stores, operated by the companies who also build the hardware, including Oculus (Facebook-owned), Samsung, and Google. The relationship between the companies only further complicates this landscape. Samsung had already incorporated Oculus’s technology, and during the life of our project the two moved into closer marketing associations for both hardware and content.
Our project teams’ professional relationships with the content partnerships staff of hardware companies produced marketing opportunities, such as the production of branded Google Cardboard headsets, and publicity through the hardware platforms’ channels to audiences. These potential benefits became factors when deciding which playback equipment to target.
The Playback Hardware
It’s useful to think of two categories of consumer-grade playback hardware: wired, high-fidelity and mobile. The high-fidelity class is primarily exemplified by the Oculus company’s Rift and Crescent Bay headsets. They are capable of very high video quality and a lot of interactivity, but must be tethered to a powerful external computer.
The mobile class contains more devices, but they share common design fundamentals. A smartphone provides the screen, computation, and most of the necessary motion sensing. It clips into a light-excluding headset with lenses between the user’s eyes and the smartphone. However, the mobile devices have far less computing power than the high-fidelity class, which forces VR producers to compress video and restrict some interactivity. Smartphone variability introduces further complexity; old versions of operating systems and lower-powered processors mean VR experiences may crash or not play at all. The most prominent companies in this group are Samsung (with its Gear VR product) and Google (with Cardboard).
So, the key tradeoff when considering hardware is between providing a very high-fidelity and stable experience on expensive, unwieldy equipment and a more variable, slightly lower-quality experience on cheaper, less cumbersome equipment.
Platform Reach, Content Stores, and Marketing
The producers considered the apparent marketing and promotion opportunities associated with the various companies’ content stores.
Google, marketing its Cardboard headset, provides partners with an option to produce branded headsets, designed to be given out at public events and sent to a mailing list. Google had been using its Play store to distribute VR content, though it subsequently rolled out VR support to its YouTube app for Android phones and announced intent to launch on iOS.
Oculus, owned by Facebook, provides its high-end devices as development kits and had announced a release date of spring of 2016 for its consumer product. The Rift and Crescent Bay product managers appeared to be primarily targeting the gaming market, emphasizing computer-generated graphics over immersive video. However, the Oculus brand was also being promoted within the content store used by the Samsung Gear VR device. That store included games and narrative experiences from a number of publishers.
We ultimately chose to develop the project for both Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. This required significant development time, but it allowed for the documentary to reach a far greater audience via Cardboard, while also retaining higher resolution for the Gear VR.