VRLA: How Can Virtual Reality Content Creators Make Money?

A Weta-created experience based on Disney's 'The BFG' is among the latest VR content at the expo.
Courtesy of Oculus
Currently available VR headsets include the Oculus Rift.

This weekend’s Virtual Reality LA (VRLA) confab is expected to draw thousands to the Los Angeles Convention Center, but for many stakeholders, the big unresolved issue continues to be how content creators can make money with virtual reality.

That was a key topic of discussion among many attendees, which included those who are interested in creating VR content, as well as technology developers, studio execs exploring VR’s potential and startups looking for investors.

Roy Taylor, vp of VR content alliances for tech developer AMD’s Radeon Technologies Group, estimated that roughly 500 VR entertainment experiences are in development, at a cost anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million per project. “But what everyone wants to know is, when can we sell tickets?" he said.

Taylor believes the answer to this question can come from companies looking to offer paid content in public venues. In particular, he cited Awesome Rocketship, a startup that made its debut at VRLA with a plan to distribute VR content via viewing "pods" that the company aims to install at movie theaters, shopping malls and other public venues.  

Awesome Rocketship’s CEO Jim Stewartson said that to do this, it aims to license VR programs from studios — he said these discussions have started — as well as independent developers, or possibly come on board as a partner or co-producer. In some cases, the VR offered at a cinema might be an extension of the feature presentation itself.

Stewartson added that Awesome Rocketship (which has a technology partnership with AMD) is planning launches in the U.S. Europe and Asia, beginning this fall.

Many stakeholders confirm that, currently, much of the content creation spending in the fledgling VR entertainment space continues to come from marketing departments — "VR for PR," as one attendee calls it.

Attendees showing studio-related content included Wayne Stables of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, who brought with him a new VR experience created with Weta’s VFX assets from Steven Spielberg’s recent release The BFG. The VR experience lets viewers find out what it would feel like to see the world as the film's young protagonist Sophie saw it — sitting in the hand of the giant.

Weta also provided CG for Pete’s Dragon: Elliot’s Flyover, a new VR experience based on Disney’s Aug. 12 release, Pete’s Dragon. The live action for this experience was filmed in New Zealand with Nokia OZO VR cameras, as part of a recently announced VR deal between Nokia Technologies and Disney.

Director Kevin Cornish also finds brands to be the most willing to invest in VR entertainment content. He's at VRLA to show some early previs of Remember, Remember, a sci-fi series he plans to direct for AMD, aimed at demonstrating the potential of AMD’s immersive audio technology for VR.

Meanwhile, startup Visionary VR — whose co-founder and CEO is Gil Barron, an alum of VFX house Method — is focusing on both content creation and distribution. Its Mindshow platform aims to let anyone, consumers or professionals, create their own VR experience. Wearing VR goggles, the user places him or herself into the story as a character, and then can record the performance.

In the early development stage, available characters and locations for these stories are limited to those provided by Visionary VR. Baron said that further out, the company hopes to enable professionals to bring in their own characters (i.e. the BFG) and locations.

At this stage, Mindshow is being developed to work with the HTC Vive VR headset. Support for other systems that have hand controllers are expected to follow.

Carl Rosendahl, who founded the former computer animation studio PDI, is an angel investor in Visionary VR. “The are using VR to create content for VR, while today most of the tools we use were developed to make 2D content,” he said of what interested him about the company’s approach.

VRLA runs through Saturday.