Content is the Key Enabler for VR and 4K

I wrote about VR and 4K in my review of CES trends in last week’s Insiders post, but I wanted to drill a little deeper on both these topics. In particular, the role of content in the uptake of these technologies. In both cases, whether and when this new tech takes off will be heavily dependent on the availability of compelling content.

4K – Following the HD Path

Unlike the last failed attempt to drive television set upgrades a few years ago with 3D technology, Ultra HD and 4K looks likely to follow the trail blazed by HD almost twenty years ago. That standard, too, was officially introduced to consumers several years before it became mainstream and it wasn’t until compelling content became available it really took off in earnest. The single largest driver was the availability of linear HD content through Pay TV providers, which still supplied the vast majority of video viewed by most households.

This year looks likely to be the one when 4K video finally becomes available through major pay TV providers in the US, with the Rio Olympics this summer likely to be a major driver. Sports in particular generally benefit significantly from higher resolution content and those fans are often the first to demand it (and to invest in the hardware that can play it). With enough 4K televisions in homes now, the pay TV providers are finally supporting the standard in their set-top boxes but they’re still waiting on the cable and broadcast network owners to start supplying the content. One of the big wrinkles yet to be ironed out is whether the new 4K streams and channels will cost more than the HD streams provided today. The pay TV providers would certainly like to avoid another hike in their content costs but the channel owners are almost certainly going to demand higher payments to justify the investment they’ll make in cameras and bandwidth to broadcast sporting events in 4K.

On the non-linear side, others are also starting to provide 4K content to end users. At CES, 4K Blu-ray players were announced, while Netflix reminded its audience it already provides some of its original content in 4K resolution for viewers who want it and have hardware that can support it. Though Blu-Ray and other physical formats seem likely to be far less important this time around than they were with HD, streaming video will be much more important and new shows and movies will have to be captured in sufficiently high resolution to allow this viewing when they reach audiences in the coming years.

VR – Content Uncertain Beyond Gaming

Although with 4K the question is largely one of timing at this point, with virtual reality the question is much more of quantity and quality. That is, it’s clear that at least some game developers will be creating or tweaking titles for VR consumption but it’s not yet clear the technology will go any further than that. As such, VR looks, for now, to be likely to succeed only with a subset of hardcore gamers, itself a niche within the broader market. What’s not clear is whether VR will have success in the mainstream moviemaking world, where creating full-length content in VR will mean dramatic changes in the filmmaking process.

There are already lots of examples of shorter-form VR content — concert videos, venue tours, and the like. But many of these are being produced by the companies trying to sell VR gear rather than by big movie or television studios. The other complication with VR is there will be no single standard or technology, with some significant variations between the various major players in the market today. As such, even if VR in general reaches decent-sized audiences, that market won’t be addressable through any single platform or vendor. To be sure, some of the work done for one technology will be reusable for others but, unlike 4K, there will be no universal format.

Even though content is really the last remaining obstacle to the mainstreaming of 4K at this point, virtual reality still has a long way to go on the hardware side too, as any of the major vendors will readily admit. Though the experience has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, today’s virtual reality products still fall short of the truly immersive, interactive experiences we’ve been promised. More powerful hardware should address this problem over the next few years, but it’s another potential delaying factor in the mass-market adoption of VR and will be another in the chicken-and-egg delays that often beset new technologies waiting on sufficient content and vice versa.

2016 will be a key year for VR content, too, but not as pivotal as I suspect it will be for 4K. Rather, 2016 will probably be remembered as the year mainstream VR technology finally became available, while later years will reveal exactly how mainstream that adoption can become, based on the availability of content. If content never gets beyond gaming, this is destined to remain a niche market. But, if the video industry sees enough value in VR to make a significant investment, it could truly break into the mass market.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

2 thoughts on “Content is the Key Enabler for VR and 4K”

  1. 4K will happen more because of marketing, and because essentially
    most people will just get it for free with their next TV. I can already
    buy a 4K TV that is bigger, and less for less money than my current HDTV.

    But consumer 4K TV is more a marketing number than any kind of real benefit. Content won’t change that.

    Most people have their homes/TV arranged in such a way that even 1080p content is outside the range of human ability to distinguish.

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