Virtual reality has proven to be about more than just gaming, with the potential to watch TV within VR environments.
By
Dan Barrett

14 Oct 2016 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2016 - 4:06 PM

As I watched the shark swim around my security cage, I felt unease that I didn't know exactly where the shark was, but I was never afraid of the computer generated killer. Virtual reality can trick your mind into accepting the world that visually surrounds you, but without the smell of the ocean and sensation of water upon your exposed skin, there will always be a distance between you and the mortal danger that a non-existent shark represents.

While the opportunity to partake in experiences like being attacked by a shark, rob a bank with Jason Statham, or ride a horror roller-coaster was appealing, I was quietly enthused by a little-discussed feature it offered - a virtual home cinema. I entered a virtual reality environment to watch television and was immediately filled with a moment of unbridled joy.

I had been excited to try out the new PlayStation VR for several months, having pre-ordered one several months ago. To my mind, the PlayStation VR is a tipping point product for VR - it is the first product that is affordable enough for the mainstream, while still offering a powerful platform for interactive media storytelling. Will the cheaper price be enough to convince the masses that VR isn't a 3D TV-like technological flop? We'll soon know, but it hasn't stopped huge investment in VR technology by Silicon Valley and Hollywood

VR isn't entirely about games, but rather it is being sold on the promise of unique experiences. Pretend to be Batman, drive a motorcar too fast and too furious, fly a Star Wars X-Wing. But, just quietly, the experience I was eager to really experience was to watch some telly.

The technology used in the PlayStation VR headset was initially developed from an effort five years ago by Sony to sell personal TV viewer headsets. 2011's sexily-branded product, the Sony HMZ-T1, boasted "an immersive experience, which is similar to watching video on a large screen approximating 150 inches from 12 feet away (750-inch virtual screen, virtual viewing distance approximately 65 feet away)."

Any video streaming platform available on PlayStation 4 can be viewed through the VR headset. Netflix, Stan, and, yes, SBS On Demand are all available. The user interface of watching the apps is exactly the same as if you were to watch them on your TV, only through the headset the image is seen on a huge rectangle floating in front of your eyes with a black background. In the US, streaming service Hulu developed an app for the PlayStationVR which takes TV watching to the absolute next level. 

It was the Hulu app that I road-tested and the experience had be giggling with enthusiasm as soon as the app loaded. Instead of a floating scree to watch content on, I was transported from my suburban Sydney lounge room to an inner-city swanky apartment with a massive TV screen enveloping one of its walls. 

 

The idea of putting on a virtual reality headset in a lounge room to be transported to a different lounge room to watch TV in is obviously stupid. It really is. But, it also provides an incredibly unique viewing experience that shouldn't be dismissed too readily.

At home I have a modest, but gorgeous 55 inch flat-screen at home. In 2016, that's a pretty standard size for a lounge-room in a house. The room could probably support a 65 inch panel, but getting bigger than that would really mean having to ask some hard questions about exactly how much furniture is needed in the room. 

But, put on the VR headset and there's a screen 5-times bigger in the room. Watching an episode of New Girl has never been so confronting. 

While some virtual reality experiences will engage in tricks to provide the user with a sense of having a body, the Hulu app just places your disembodied self into the room. With no corporeal self, all there is to do is to just sit down and watch TV with your absolute complete attention. 

Which means no second-screening. While I make an effort nowadays to keep the phone on the coffee table so that I can give my stories the utmost attention, that's often easier said than done. The reality is that in a boring part of a show, it takes just seconds for the Twitter app to be loading in the palm of my hand.

But with a VR helmet on, you can't do that. To look at the TV requires you to take off the helmet entirely to look at your phone, which means you can't just glance up to see what is happening. 

And this is where watching TV in a VR environment may well become a component of how we watch TV in the future. 

3D television never took off for a number of reasons. Probably the main one was that glasses are an unnatural way to watch TV. When we watch the telly, it is very rarely with complete attention. People are doing things like cooking, or going toilet, or trying to work out where you left your phone and are often in and out of the room. No one wants to wear glasses while doing that. 

VR TV offers an extra layer of complication. First of all, at least with this generation of the PlayStation VR hardware, users are tethered to the video game console by a giant black wire. Also, you have a ridiculous helmet and screen strapped to your face. It doesn't lend itself to casual TV watching or being sociable with family or friends in the room with you.

But in terms of concentration and blocking the world out, there is no more perfect way to give yourself over completely to a movie or TV show than to completely remove your physical self from the equation. 

There are, of course, some major drawbacks from watching TV through the virtual reality headset. It does completely remove you from anything else happening in the room. Fine if you live by yourself, but impractical with other people around.

As I discovered, my dog wasn't entirely enthused by the difficulty he faced trying to get my attention for a belly rub. 

From a technology standpoint, watching the TV within VR was also difficult on the eyes. Whether it was the late hour contributing to the eyestrain or not, half an hour of a sitcom felt like several hours in front of a computer screen. Also, the video quality wasn't quite as good as watching it on a regular TV. Both issues that will likely be rectified as the technology improves. 

It's difficult to say just yet how frequently I would want to watch TV this way, but I can see it being a go-to next time I'm watching a serious movie with a few slow moments that could easily lead to distraction. Also, because the form factor encourages the use of headphones, it is a great solution for watching TV in a way that won't wake up other people in the house.

Right now, the technology may be impractical and exceedingly anti-social, but it has promise.

In the same way that many of us watch TV today (often a mix of broadcast, video on demand, and some subscription video on demand) is wildly different to how we were watching ten years ago, it's uncertain exactly how we will be watching TV ten years from now. But this does highlight a possible pathway towards the way we might be engaging with the TV screen in the future: by strapping it to our face.

* * * *

Check out the SBS VR page for some outstanding virtual reality experiences that will let you better understand the world.

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