Sony Refocusing VR Efforts With Virtual Events Demand Expected To Soar

Japanese media and entertainment giant Sony is doubling down on its efforts to perfect its VR headsets in anticipation of a boom in demand for online events. With the future of mass gatherings such as concerts, sports events, conferences, trade fairs thrown into doubt by the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, Sony is convinced that VR headsets are set to finally make the breakthrough into the mainstream. Both in professional environments and as home entertainment.

Sony chief executive Kenichiro Yoshida outlined his company’s VR strategy in an interview with the Financial Times this week. When asked for his opinion on how the Covid-19 lockdown period we are still currently in just the first stages of relaxing, and the potential for periodic tightening of controls on social gatherings in the future, will influence entertainment, Mr Yoshida expressed the belief that it will drive forward mainstream adoption of VR technology.

Sony has been in a now decades long battle with Microsoft for the games console market and analysts believe that duel will again increase in intensity with the releases of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s new Series X console later this year. It can be expected that both companies, Microsoft’s VR headset is the HoloLens, will incorporate VR into future games releases.

But beyond gaming, Mr Yoshida thinks new difficulties with mass gatherings will provide new opportunities for VR:

“The challenge is how we can conduct live [concerts] remotely that are both immersive and real time. We are experimenting with streaming of concerts using VR but the key is how we can offer the experience more smoothly.”

The lockdown period has already seen technological innovation turned to as a workaround to social distancing rules. In late April the rapper Travis Scott held a concert ‘inside’ the hugely popular online multi-player game Fortnite. The event attracted 12.3 million live viewers and saw streaming of the musician’s new video grow by 400%.

The event caught Mr Yoshida’s attention and he immediately asked for new focus to be placed on perfecting Sony’s VR technology and exploring business models and opportunities in the space. Even after most lockdown restrictions end, mass events like concerts that bring thousands of people into close proximity with each other are likely to remain banned for an extended period.

VR headsets have been commercially available for a few years now and Sony itself has sold around 5 million PlayStation VR units. But the technology has struggled to really secure a mainstream footing through a combination of hardware that is still being refined and limited numbers of users discouraging major investment from gaming studios and other content producers.

In order to jump start mainstreaming, companies with significant investments in VR hardware are having to step up to produce content themselves. Facebook-owned Oculus, another VR headset maker, this week published results showing users of its Quest headset had spent over $100 million on content this year. But in comparison with mainstream content industries such as normal gaming, music and video streaming, that is still small change.

VR has struggled to live up to its hype but there is hope the tipping point is approaching. David Gibson of Tokyo gaming analysis firm Astris Advisory comments:

“The real breakthrough may come if they can work out a way to make VR more social so it is not just one person. Once you get the headset price down and the machine supports more than one, then VR can become a group thing, but we are not there yet.”

Mr Yoshida did not specifically discuss VR plans for the PS5 release but admitted development is still immature, saying “there is much room for progress for VR. We need to continue improving our technology”

There is growing belief that the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate VR adoption beyond the niche of dedicated gamers. Sony is in a strong position on VR and may well push the boat out further in an effort to gain an advantage over Microsoft in an area it has an edge in.

In the end VR gaming might not lead the mainstream breakthrough. It may now be concerts and the kinds of other performances that would typically take place in a stadium in front of a large crowd moving into the VR space that encourages us to add headsets to our home entertainment staples.

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