Is virtual reality set to become the new video on demand?

After 20 years building broadband networks, Kurt Rodgers works in the sweet spot where fibre broadband demand meets supply. Think of it as having a day job involving working out how we might live in the future.

It would be hard to find a more significant change in people’s habits at home than the rise of video streaming on demand services. Collectively it’s called the Netflix effect and it has disrupted the traditional way we watch television. Subject to parental guidance, my kids watch what they want, when they want. They don’t have to watch the same thing. Our family can never go back to traditional broadcast television. We select (and sometimes binge watch) content from all over the world, often at the same time it is reaching global audiences. Television is common to everyone and that’s why there’s been so much focus on this aspect of video on demand.

At work, right now there’s no killer app to rival video on demand but there are dozens vying to be to business what Netflix is to video on demand in the home.

Take video conferencing. It’s been around a long time. Like a lot of people, I spend several hours a week in a videoconferencing suite meeting with colleagues in Wellington and Christchurch. I routinely use Skype to catch up with my peers from Sydney to Silicon Valley.

Cost of access

What has changed is that the cost of access has come down. All you need now is a good hi-definition camera and screen and quality broadband services. So videoconferencing has become available to just about any business, not just the major players. This opens up all sorts of possibilities and opportunities for business, for health and for education.

Take the emergence of “massive online open courses”, or MOOCs - a sort of distance education on steroids, where you can watch a lecture from Harvard University, or complete a degree in ethics in your spare time. Doctors can watch the top surgeons in the world performing operations, and learn about better and new techniques from half a world away.

Remember training courses 10 years ago? You got on a plane and spent a day in a room listening to an expert. You did this because seeing and hearing that expert was a more engaging experience than reading a manual or textbook. As a way of conveying information, video is more personal and because of that it is more powerful. As video on demand drives down the cost of training, it levels the playing field for small and medium businesses to develop their people the same way the major players do today.

Watching sales

Video on demand is also changing how businesses go about selling products and services. A couple of years ago I was looking for a house and was able to check out potential properties using video on Open2View. It saved a lot of time in open homes. A house is the most expensive purchase most of us ever make, so it makes sense to add video to the marketing effort.

I predict online retailers will start using more video too. It’s not just about better marketing; it’s about improving the consumer experience and having a point of difference from your competition. I bought a new tent this summer and before we used it, I watched a 10 minute video that showed me how to pitch it.

Now that is useful.

For tourists thinking about a spot of hiking in New Zealand, Google Streetview has had someone walk the Milford Track with a Streetview camera. That video is an invaluable marketing tool for New Zealand.

Video is so 2016. Just wait for VR.

These are all video-related phenomena that we can see now. In five years, they will be old hat.

The next big wave that will drive video on demand is virtual reality. There’s a hint of the potential for New Zealand right now with Auckland Museum’s Air NZ exhibition, where visitors can feel, see and hear the future of flying through  virtual reality headsets. In Wellington, VR technology company 8i has been building the software to enable virtual reality to be an everyday experience.

The big players are already in the market. For example, YouTube has set up #360, a virtual reality channel you can use now, with Google's low-cost VR Cardboard headsets licensed to a range of manufacturers. Meanwhile,  Samsung and Oculus Rift are launching new mass market virtual reality headsets later this year.

And film-makers are experimenting with  Jump, a camera array using 16 cameras that effectively shoots video in 360 degrees.

The tools are here, VR cameras, headsets and platforms that will drive the uptake of virtual reality content. VR is immersive, engaging and transports the viewer to a new world. OK, at the moment you'd still look a right prat wearing your VR headset on the train – and you'll probably get your bag snatched too. But in five years, virtual reality will be everywhere.

To take just one idea. Your body could be 3D scanned to create a super-accurate avatar of yourself. If you were shopping for jeans, your avatar could try them on and you could see exactly how they are going to look.

Video and virtual reality will become ubiquitous, and applications using these technologies will be driven by the rise of screen definition. Ultra high definition cameras and screens, offering 16 times the resolution of existing hi-definition screens, are already driving change in the security industry by lowering the cost of facial recognition.

There’s a simple relationship at work. Better broadband enables ultra hi-definition video, and ultra hi-definition video drives the need for better broadband. That’s the future of video on demand in a nutshell.

Kurt Rodgers is network technology strategist for Chorus

This article was originally published in The Download, a publication produced by Tangible Media for Chorus.