Virtual Reality in Spotlight at Investor Conference

Oculus Crescent Bay prototype - H 2014

Executives from the NBA, AltspaceVR, NextVR and an investment firm discuss the outlook for the emerging technology

Virtual reality was in the spotlight at the 42nd annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York on Wednesday.

With Facebook this year paying $2 billion for VR technology firm Oculus VR, the emerging technology has become a bigger topic in Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

A panel on the final day of the UBS conference emphasized that VR's selling point is mostly that it helps people who are already passionate about something to feel like they are there experiencing it up close and personally. Panelists cited sports and concerts as focus areas early on in the development of VR.

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VR movies, virtual video conferencing and other experiences are likely to come into focus "down the road," said Drew Oetting from technology investment firm Formation 8. For now, most activity will concentrate "around small, contained experiences," he argued.

Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, said the film business will be affected over time. "Moviemaking as we know it will change," he said. "The director wants you to focus on one person," but audiences may hear someone or something else that will draw their attention.

Echoing comments from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he also said that "the social aspect is going to be really interesting, really powerful."

Eric Romo, CEO of AltspaceVR, said social will be a key part of the experience. "We focus on [people] being in the same place with other people. There is no analog for that online right now." He said VR can provide the opportunity to feel like one person is together with other people and experience something together. "We are really about this shared experience" and about "creating a shared experience around content," Romo said.

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Jeff Marsilio, associate vp global media at the NBA, said for the basketball league VR is a natural addition to its offers. "We are very open to new platforms," especially ones that transport fans to places they can't be in, he said. For example, the league has used VR technology to film a recent game in Brazil.

Asked about the production process, he said VR is about finding "the perfect vantage point and then getting the hell out of the way." So the NBA focused on picking the best position for its camera and then letting people experience the game via VR.

He said NBA VR offers could be short form and longer form. "Ultimately, people will watch full-length basketball games," he predicted. He said he wasn't sure though how highlight packages would work in VR. He suggested that 15 seconds of quick edits and fast-paced action could make viewers sick.

Asked if VR would cannibalize live games and other events, Marsilio said "you can't smell the popcorn" or feel the vibration of the seats in VR or fully sense the electricity of the crowd. "VR is going to drive ticket sales," he said. "It will advertise how amazing that in-arena experience is."

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Discussing adoption hurdles for VR, the panel mentioned production costs. But Marsilio said the cost is about the best camera possible, processing and compression. "It isn't an exorbitant cost to film an event that you are already producing," he said.

How interested are investors in VR companies?

Oetting stated: "It's very early on." He said investors are still shying away from a majority of VR investments, although Oculus and other deals have helped. "Investors, because of early wins, are becoming more comfortable," he said. "But I still think it is incredibly early."

The panel was also asked for predictions for VR in 2015. "I think we're going to see China as a big, big adopter of virtual reality," Allen said. And Romo predicted that big online and media companies would have "some story" around VR in the new year.

Twitter: @georgszalai