How Netflix works in virtual reality, and why it’s not in HD

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A close-up look at Samsung’s new $99 Gear VR.

If there’s one announcement out of Oculus Connect that’s got me excited, it’s that Netflix has finally arrived on virtual reality, courtesy of Samsung’s $99 Gear VR headset.Although it seems like a no-brainer this news is peculiar on a couple of levels, the first being that Oculus Rift support was added for free by Doom creator John Carmack. Microsoft, who now owns everything to do with Minecraft, didn’t pay him for the work, but as the head technology guy at Oculus VR he felt it was important enough to be worth his time. ‘I think [Minecraft is] the single most important application that we can do for virtual reality, to make sure that we have an army of fanatic, passionate supporters that will advocate why VR is great,’ he said. ‘This is why you want to do some of it every single day.

At $200, its last-generation headset, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, already undercut Oculus, Sony, and HTC, which are all due to release their more-expensive VR viewers—all targeted at hard-core gamers—in 2016. While there are plenty of interesting video apps out for both the Oculus Rift and Gear VR, so far they’ve all required importing my own video files or purchasing films. It opens the platform up to anyone who owns one of Samsung’s four new flagship phones: the Galaxy Note 5, the Galaxy S6, the Galaxy S6 Edge, and the Galaxy 6S Edge+. Of course, Google also has Cardboard—a headset made of cheap components, including its namesake material—that’s supposed to introduce the technology to the masses. Samsung says the Gear VR’s touchpad has been improved with greater control while experiencing the robust selection of film, gaming, 360 degree video and experiential content available for the headset. “We see virtual reality as the next computing platform, and we are thrilled to partner with Oculus on Gear VR to set the standard for mobile VR and bring this revolutionary product to consumers,” said JK Shin, CEO and President of IT & Mobile Division, Samsung Electronics. “Together with Samsung, we’ve redefined virtual reality and created the best mobile VR experience available today,” said Brendan Iribe, CEO, Oculus.

Everybody that work on that at Oculus and Facebook, you all have my deepest thanks for making this happen.’ The other reason it’s weird is because Minecraft creator Notch was originally working on Minecraft VR Edition for Oculus Rift, but stopped when Facebook bought company Oculus VR for $2 billion. The good news: Whatever technical hurdles John Carmack and Co. needed to overcome to get Netflix streaming to function in virtual reality, well, they solved it.

So it’s a little surprising that the new model’s pre-production mockup looks almost identical to the old Gear VRs scattered all around it at Oculus Connect. You can see his reaction to today’s news in the tweet below, with the reference to Quiet and D.D. implying he finds playing Metal Gear Solid V more interesting.

Samsung teamed up with Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, to overcome some of these issues, integrating an accelerometer, gyroscope, and proximity sensors. Enter Netflix VR and you’re placed in what Carmack referred to as the “Netflix Living Room,” a weird cabin environment in the mountains with a decently-sized TV on the wall (pictured at top).

The Minecraft announcement was made at a Oculus Rift press event last night in the US, where they were showing off the Oculus Touch controller and the new Oculus Medium virtual sculpting tool. And because it’s geared toward viewing 360-degree videos—and less on processor-intensive games—it’s able to render the experiences relatively smoothly. “The reason we’re focusing so much effort and energy—and the reason we’re doing mobile and video—is because everybody has a mobile phone and everyone watches video,” Matt Apfel, vice president of Samsung Media Solutions Center, tells Quartz. It’s about as real as reality can get, provided you have a million dollars to purchase a well-furnished cabin in the Rockies or the Sierras or the Cascades, as this Road to VR video of the environment shows. The current trackpad is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the headset, and the only way to find it is to feel for the edges or swipe around until something happens.

The latest version still doesn’t work across multiple platforms, but it will be compatible with four Samsung smartphones—double the previous model. But with Netflix, the possibilities end with the sort of TV you’d see in real life and say, “Damn, that’s a nice TV.” This is what Netflix thinks of as “The Core Netflix Experience.” Not a movie theater. Still, some, like Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon, believe there’s a lot to be desired. “I believe the high end is what you need,” he tells Quartz.

Juniper Research forecasts 30 million shipments and $4 billion in revenue from headset sales by 2020. “I think these low-barrier, entry technologies are very important,” says Adam Levin, who helped found the Virtual Reality Foundation. “Certainly there is a divide between what you can do with a computer-based experience and cell phone-based experience, but the availability of cell phones as a way into virtual reality is very important.” But with major streaming services like Netflix and Twitch on board, plus Minecraft support down the line, Samsung and Oculus are betting that the biggest selling point of the new Gear VR won’t be new hardware — it’ll be having lots of reasons to use it. Samsung’s sixth incarnation of it’s flagship Galaxy S line of smartphones changes the formula up significantly with a premium, all metal and glass design, as well as the latest in hardware.

But each time, because VR is so new to these companies, we’ll end up with something like this Netflix app—perfectly competent for a first try, but facing the same issues other apps already figured out through years of iteration.

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