The Future of Virtual Reality Will Be Televised

written by: Jeroen Elfferich

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oculusOculus VR’s CEO Brendan Iribe recently said that one of the key motivations for joining Facebook is the potential to address a billion users with their virtual reality solution, and become the platform for something truly big - the first billion-person Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO).

This sparked a lot of discussion, with most dismissing the idea as fantasy:

"Virtual Reality (VR) will remain a niche and never will so many people buy those goggles".

Understandable, as previous attempts to generate lasting mass-market interest in augmented and virtual reality have failed. VRML, Second Life, augmented reality apps, even Google Glass – they all seem designed by people a bit too carried away by their Gibson and Stephenson novels. Previous VR hypes have turned out to be technology for technology’s sake, not able to solve big problems, awkward to use and even alienating us from people nearby.

That’s not to say that virtual reality doesn't have merit beyond niches. Any parent who has observed their child play Minecraft can attest, and even casual gamers today have access to a level of realism that a decade ago was only available in high-end military simulators. However the evolutionary path of video and PC game platforms, even if a VR headset is bundled with next gen game consoles, will not deliver a platform, let alone a game, with a reach of a billion simultaneous users.

In the broader entertainment industry of today, there are screens that already get that kind of usage. TV reaches billions every day and has peak events like Eurovision, Superbowl, FIFA’s Worldcup or China’s Spring Festival Gala. And more than a billion people have a touchscreen mobile device, with an average 25 downloaded apps (Angry Birds, anyone?). Looking at these numbers, it can be argued that the first game to reach a billion people at the same time will not be created from scratch. Instead it can be expected to leverage existing media usage patterns and the complementary nature of the screens billions of us use already. Before we look at how this relates to VR, let’s look at some examples of screen-based interactivity so far.

In 2000 I first got involved in big online interactive events. My company created a Flash-based app for browsers (no smartphones, let alone tablets in those days) to accompany a new TV game show. In this format, two studio contestants faced off against a third, remotely participating via webcam. And you could play along online, even on dial-up speeds. In other words, it was a simple, early TV-based multiplayer game that managed to attract up to 10,000 users a day. So let’s put the 2000 benchmark at 10K users.

Skip to 2009 and Microsoft took large-scale interactivity to another level. By applying the TV format 1 vs 100 from Endemol, it ‘tellyfied’ a video game to an instantly recognizable play along experience. I like to see it as the first MMO you could play with your parents. It broke the Guinness world record for “most contestants in a game show” at 114,000 concurrent players. At Ex Machina we developed part of the back-end technology for this game and observing its success provided a couple of important insights. First is that combining buzz with scarcity is a great marketing tool (something TV people know for ages). Second is that the momentum of a large group of people, in sync with the same content, can work equally well online as it does in, say, a stadium. The benchmark for concurrent usage in 2009: 100K.

Fast forward to today. The combination and integration of online interactivity and TV is getting more and more common. Twitter’s value has benefited greatly from its default status as the real-time TV water cooler. Media companies around the world are (or should be) developing and implementing strategies to better orchestrate their content and engage users across all those screens. As a result, today’s TV viewer can access online content related to the program they’re watching, follow celebs, chat with friends, interact in sync with the show, determine its outcome and play along.

Not surprisingly, the biggest scale multi screen experiences are linked to major events, things we put in our diary. Sports, ceremonies and, more recently, reality and talent shows attract massive audiences. And engaging those viewers online, to let them participate or even decide the outcome has proven very successful. Perhaps it’s not a very novel idea - phone and text based voting have been around for decades – but it’s proving more compelling than ever, especially when integrated with social networks.

Yet the most challenging, most rewarding and, ultimately, most popular interactive experiences use game mechanics. This means game shows, obviously, but other genres can fit perfectly too, from talent shows to election debates to (fantasy) sports. There now is plenty of proof that 10, 20 or even 30% of viewers can pick up their devices to play along at a moment’s notice. A recent example is Talpa’s new ‘What Do I Know?!’ game show, where we had half a million people in a single episode. I’m sure that before the year is over this format, and others like it, regularly reach a million.

So to recap: 2000: 10K. 2009: 100K. 2014: 1 million concurrent users. Following the trend, there will be plenty of room to grow for multi-screen interactive entertainment. But I’m not sure a second screen app can ever be compelling enough to get to a billion users. Second screen implies separating content from interactivity.

Enters Oculus Rift, with their new, billion user strong overlords at Facebook.

Remember the first time you held an iPhone? Perhaps you, like me, weren’t so excited when Steve Jobs revealed it. I had already used plenty of touchscreen phones and PDAs, and spec-wise I couldn’t see what the big deal was. But holding it, discovering multi-touch gestures, playing with it – you were sold on it. Many who try an Oculus Rift experience something similar. It’s taking integration of interaction and perception to a new plateau. I think this could be the killer feature for a billion user MMO.

The first wave of content for Oculus Rift and its ilk are mostly Metaverse-like. And, like Second Life before it, this will be intriguing enough to create a hype of major proportions and help sell millions of devices. But, as impressive as these cyberpunk-inspired applications may seem at first, I believe the biggest hit this platform will get will be much more down to earth. I think it will be based on massive events accessible to and loved by all. Think sports, debates, contests, game shows. I think the first truly big online event will be one part real, one part virtual. One part MMO, one part TV.

The future of virtual reality will be televised.

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