21st Jul 2017

Former current affairs producer, and now editorial lead for BBC Research and Development (BBC R&D), Zillah Watson, has spoken out about VR and its issues, on the subject of whether 360° video is really the ‘gateway to VR’ that a large portion of the broadcast industry is saying it is.

Ms Watson believes that the biggest issue for VR is the limited audience. She said, at the Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat hosted in Oxford recently, ‘We haven't got a way of distributing VR to an audience to find out what they want from the experience.

Leading the BBC investigation into the suitability of VR for news reporting over 360°, Ms Watson’s approach has been thorough, and she realises that audience numbers, content and headset quality for VR are just too low for it to be considered a replacement for 360° any time soon.

She said, ‘I question if there is any evidence that watching 360° will make a user want to watch on a VR headset. 360° video on mobile or in browsers will not drive people to VR. If we don't create a good content ecosystem that people want to explore and view and we don't make headsets better, then the whole thing won't work.

Further concerns about VR use in news generation

It is clear, according to Watson, that initial investment is on the uptake from tech partnerships, such as Samsung and Google, and news organisations like The Guardian and The New York Times have begun investing in VR. Ms Watson has further concerns about such relationships and said, ‘There is a danger in the relationship tech giants like Google may exert on the growth of VR in news publishing, especially since news is built on independence and relies on accuracy.

Ms Watson is not alone in her concerns, however, as the trade body The Digital Production Partnership, has publicly advised its members to ignore the ‘pressure to act just now’, and instead wait and keep an eye on developments before they jump onboard.

Although industry analysts are predicting significant growth for VR, it seems likely that this will not be happening for at least five years, while the industry catches up in terms of VR content production and, more importantly, improves headset quality.

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