By now, you’ve heard the promise and read the press: Virtual reality is on the verge of becoming a groundbreaking step forward for many interests — from consumers to the enterprise.
I’m a digital media consultant, and my area of focus is new business development — helping media and tech companies find partnerships that help them grow. So I’ve been traversing public VR conferences, private corporate events, even boardrooms, all to see where the business opportunities are here.
I’ve encountered a rich pageant of parties eyeballing this new platform — from wireless charging entrepreneurs to curious studio executives, a few brave advertising entrepreneurs, and of course game companies. There are also potential applications for VR across a wide span of other areas: real estate, medicine, even aviation. But after talking to some of the biggest first movers in VR, it’s clear there really isn’t a uniform business development roadmap, at least not yet.
The top VR players — Magic Leap, Facebook’s Oculus, Sony, and Microsoft’s Hololens — are really not saying much at this point. They’re quietly taking meetings, signing NDAs, doing Q&A, and writing code, but they’re playing their cards close to their vest.
And what about the major media players? One Hollywood studio brought a large group of us across the country recently to “present ideas” over several days on its lot, all in the interests of “helping us understand this.” Another backed off any business meetings, sending along its tech teams to meet us first. And a very big one mentioned it has a “committee of 90 looking at VR” so that it can understand “what it means, across the enterprise.” Apparently everyone wants to be on that committee.
For an emerging technology with so much capital, attention, new hardware, and potentially large tech and media interests stirring about, I’ve found the media business development landscape to be rather flat. It’s more about the technology and hardware than the content at this stage.
There are some fundamentals at play that clearly hold back this new technology from becoming a mainstream medium: incompatible development platforms, high priced hardware, curious and occasionally nausea-inducing consumer experiences, and app stores that just aren’t there yet, to name a few.
So how can you tell where VR will take hold first? And how can forward-looking businesses position themselves so they don’t get left behind when VR really takes off?
There are definitely some other gaps and opportunities I can see at this stage:
Audio: There are many 360 video technologies and players in the market, but not so many great 3D audio technologies. Taken for granted by some, audio is a key, nearly forgotten part of the new landscape, as important as video. Every good new VR or AR technology needs a strong 3D audio technology, so this area seems fundamental.
Advertising: Perhaps obvious, but the few media types I’ve seen hinting at the development of ad networks for VR apps are brave pioneers, as are some of the new VR agencies producing curiosities like a McDonald’s virtual happy meal app, or Blippar’s Pepsi cans, which link consumers to augmented reality promotions.
Gaming: Games are perhaps a closer world to VR, with some similar business models (in-app purchasing) to consider, and a shared development language in Unity. But I hope that gaming won’t be the centerpiece of this new medium’s growth prospects. I mean no disrespect to the game business; I simply feel VR can shape many industries, and I’d like to see a new sector flourish or perhaps lead the way with virtual reality.
And here are some hopefully constructive ideas for first movers to gear up to capture opportunity in this new space:
1. If you’re a business developer, think and ally broadly: “Coopetition” definitely trumps competition at this stage. There’s far more opportunity for cooperative partnerships amongst VR content and technologies than there are competitive, exclusive partnerships in the market currently.
2. Try to work within an industry rather than push a new VR approach on it. One example: I’ve continually heard from the media production community about the need to integrate their existing production tools with new VR technologies, at a reasonable cost. If you’re pitching a VR technology, consider building that plug-in for your partner, as they’re not likely to invest in an extravagant VR setup at such an early stage of the game.
3. If you’re looking for an investment, consider a joint approach. That competitive VR technology may actually have complementary applications and strengths to yours. Together, you might present a broader, better, and stronger front to an investor.
4. Easier said than done, but VR should be an entirely new medium, especially for those creating programming and creative content. Create for this medium, not for a legacy medium. A thought for digital media types: When a true hit emerges on this new platform, it won’t be a Jay-Z video or a 360 version of a major Hollywood picture. It will be a piece of content or a community that capitalizes on the strengths of the VR experience.
5. Remember the enterprise. “B to B” is as much of a focus for VR as the consumer market, and it may be that everyone from real estate to medicine will find great uses for the technology. Put the enterprise right up there on your partnership pipeline, too.
6. Finally, don’t worry too much about that business model at this point (I’m sure this sounds strange coming from a business developer): Partner and gain ground first. My sense is that many VR business models will eventually emerge, but you may be better off playing the partner field wisely for the next year.
The “vibe” of the VR business makes me think back to the early commercial days of the Internet. There’s a lot of potential, but the pieces just aren’t coming together yet. They will eventually come together, though. And the results will force changes in many industries. This brave new VR world looks potent to me.
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