Toronto-based firm Secret Location is looking to change the rules of the game with Vusr, a tool that streamlines the distribution of virtual reality content to all current VR platforms. Vusr has already caught the attention of major content creators such as CBC/Radio-Canada and The New York Times.
Virtual reality is an incredibly powerful tool for storytelling, but it’s also a highly-fragmented technology. There are currently eight major VR platforms with many more companies developing their own technologies. Distributing content to each one requires time, money, and the developers to make it happen. Toronto-based firm Secret Location identified the problem and has worked out a solution.
“We’re still effectively trying to figure out how to tell stories with the medium. Once some of the technological hurdles have been surmounted, it will be a true a medium beyond TV, film, and radio,” says Ryan Andal, head of products at Secret Location.
Andal and his team developed Vusr a tool that helps media outlets and creators easily distribute their VR content across multiple platforms. Andal says it allows content creators such as The New York Times and CBC/Radio-Canada to focus on creating content rather than building apps.
“We build your VR app using core templates we’ve created, and we build it out for each of the major platforms. You manage your content from a central content management system. You push your content out, and everything is transcoded for the individual systems’ stores,” explains Andal.
A hands-on VR app creator
Secret Location considered building a simpler version of Vusr in the past. The team envisioned a ‘YouTube’ style service whereby content creators could just easily publish their virtual reality experiences in a one-size-fits-all solution deployable across all platforms.
Andal says that this would have ultimately resulted in poor quality VR content, as each VR platform is completely unique in its format and requires separate templates to properly display content.
“We could do that, but I think that limits our understanding of what VR needs right now. It doesn’t need more content, it needs good content,” he adds.
Instead, Secret Location has decided to adopt a hands-on approach with its clients, using Vusr to help them develop their apps to accommodate as many VR channels as they wish. Content creators decide how many platforms they’d like to be on (e.g., Gear VR, Google Daydream, Oculus Rift), and Vusr’s system allows them to easily distribute content to those product users. The more platforms to which you distribute, the more expensive using VUSR becomes (with clients ‘on the higher end’ paying around $50,000 per app per platform).
Powering The New York Times
One of Secret Location’s first Vusr clients was The New York Times. The major newspaper now uses Vusr to distribute 360-degree videos across multiple VR platforms via its nytvr app. Like all VR content creators, the newspaper was facing fragmentation issues.
“One of the biggest challenges in distributing VR content is discoverability and accessibility. Since the current VR market is segmented across platforms and access is limited by the specific headset a user has, it’s important to be on multiple platforms,” says Jordan Vita, associate product manager at The New York Times.
“Vusr helps solve this. Once an app is built, it takes little to no additional effort to distribute content across all of our apps. This enables us to share our stories with a much wider audience,” she adds.
Moving into real-time rendered experiences
Since Vusr’s implementation and the app’s creation, virtual reality storytelling has become an even greater part of The New York Times’ plans. The newspaper wants to begin moving from 360-degree videos to richer and more immersive VR experiences in which the user can interact with different environments and navigate through them.
“Immersing someone in 360-degree experiences provides them with a sense of presence and perspective that uniquely conveys the importance of our journalism. As our newsroom constantly strives to push the boundaries of visual storytelling, we believe that VR will play an important role for us,” states Varun Shetty, director of strategy and head of VR for The New York Times.
Secret Location’s Ryan Andal says the company is in talks with The New York Times to begin providing real-time rendered experiences within its app.
“That means you could create a whole scene, move spatially, take advantage of real events in 3D within our platform, as opposed to only really serving 360 video. It’s a bit of a game changer,” he says before adding that real-time rendered experiences are undoubtedly the future of VR but currently pose challenges.
“There are issues. First, there are restrictions from each of the platforms themselves, like iOS in particular…There are less restrictions for on newer platforms. Daydream, Gear VR, that sort of thing,” adds Andal.
Catching up to China
Secret Location also operates out of Los Angeles, where virtual reality is a much bigger business than it is in Canada. However, the US is not the world’s ‘hot spot’ for VR.
“When I’m out in LA, the scene is more vibrant for sure. We’re smaller [in Canada], but when you compare the US to China, it’s really only a fraction of the level of interest,” Andal admits.
He attributes the massive interest and growth in China’s virtual reality sector to an arcade culture that does not exist in other countries.
“In China, for a long time, they didn’t have an at-home console market. It was illegal to own home consoles like Nintendo. The whole culture of going to the arcade, going out to an Internet cafe really stemmed from that. Now those consoles are legal, but it’s so embedded culturally that the VR arcade scene is incredible,” he says.
“What they’re doing from a content creation perspective, monetized content, is much higher than what we’re seeing. Maybe we’re a step behind the US, but we’re three steps behind China at this point.”
The future of VR: consolidation
In determining where virtual reality technology is heading, Ryan Andal says you only need to look to the past. Smartphones, for example, exploded in growth before converging down to two to three major players. He expects the same will happen with VR. All of these emerging products will consolidate into just a few key technologies.
Clients aren’t waiting for that to happen though, especially as excitement over real-time rendered experiences grows. According to Digi-Capital, investments in VR topped out at $2.3 billion in 2016.
“I can’t tell you the number of meetings I’ve had with people who are interested in this. The New York Times is actually the smallest of the clients who are now showing interest in wanting to support real-time rendered experiences. It’s a burning need in the industry right now,” says Andal.
For him, Secret Location has an obligation to help content creators distribute their content in this quickly shifting landscape.
“[The medium is in its] early days, between full gaming and straight up linear video. VR] is where everyone is sort of migrating to, but if people can’t make money creating this content than no one will. We really see our role to support content creators because if we don’t, then no one will be creating anything.”