Content, Not Hardware, Will Determine Virtual Reality’s Success

Several Players Now Creating Movies on VR Platform.

Too much emphasis is being put on the hardware that drives virtual reality (VR) and not enough on the content that will determine whether people choose to use the technology, some critics say.

Without exciting content, VR will miss the mainstream mass market just as an earlier attempt at VR did in the 1990s.

Fortunately, with the industry coming of age on the hardware side, the content that will make or break VR is bound to improve. Once the mechanics start to be understood, high-quality storytelling and experiences will follow, says Richard Marks, the head of the research team behind the Sony PlayStation VR.

While app developers essentially have only two options in the mobile phone world – iOS or Android – there are a lot more options in the VR world, with several companies battling for content supremacy. According to a new survey, VR developers are primarily building content for the HTC Vibe, Facebook’s Oculus and the Google Cardboard.

VR hardware companies like Google are investing heavily in VR films and programs to build up exclusive content that includes the production of 360-degree videos with YouTube stars. Three top cinematic virtual reality content producers, The Virtual Reality Company, Within and Félix & Paul Studios recently raised $42.5 million in funding to expand their operations.

Several players are also creating movies on the VR platform. Penrose Studios, which has been dubbed the Pixar of VR, crafted an entirely new and fantastical VR world, with a city loosely inspired by Venice floating in the sky to tell the story of its character Allumette, a girl who sells magical matchsticks. “We see ourselves not only as storytellers, but also as VR world builders,” says the company, which was founded last year.

Penrose recently raised $8.5 million in seed funding. “Cinema will be transformed by VR, and this new artistic language will be as different as cinema’s was to opera,” says Penrose CEO and founder Eugene Chung.

Penrose’s competition includes Baobab Studios, which is led by Eric Darnell, director of the $2.5 billion Madagascar franchise. It aims to bring Pixar-style animation to VR and its claim to fame is Invasion! The animated VR film is about two bumbling extra-terrestrials with ambitions to take over the Earth, until they encounter a pair of adorable bunnies – and the viewer is one of them. The company has received funding from VR makers like HTC and Samsung to PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Oculus’ filmmaking arm, Oculus Story Studio, recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Program for its animated VR experience Henry, which tells the story of a lonely hedgehog as he celebrates his birthday.

“From the start we’ve wanted to show that VR is an art form—a place that welcomes storytellers and that even at this very, very early stage it can be a powerful tool for storytelling,” says Ramiro Lopez Dau who directed the film.

Hollywood is also getting into the VR game. The Walt Disney Company is a lead investor in Jaunt VR’s $66 million Series C round of funding. The Silicon Valley-based start-up has developed a cinematic VR content-creation platform that includes a camera that can shoot professional-quality footage.

Meanwhile, Facebook recently announced a new automated feature that stabilizes the 360-degree videos that are viewed using VR headsets. Not only does the feature reduce the wobbling, nausea-inducing effects that have turned many VR users away from the technology, but it could lower the barrier for younger VR creators to create their own content.