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Oculus highlights over a million Gear VR users with new content

Engadget Engadget 11/05/2016 Nicole Lee

© Provided by Engadget

While full-fledged VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have gotten a lot of press lately, it bears remembering that Samsung's Gear VR has been around for a lot longer. And, due to its lower price and the fact that it only requires a phone, means it's also a whole lot more accessible. Which could explain why almost six months after the consumer Gear VR launched, Oculus revealed today that over one million people used Gear VR in the past month alone. The Facebook-owned entity took this milestone opportunity to not only introduce a slew of new video content, but also to give us an update on how mobile VR is progressing.

"Oculus' mission is to help people experience anything, anywhere," says Max Cohen, Oculus' head of mobile to a roomful of journalists this Tuesday. There's the high-end experience of the Rift, of course, but there's also the portable easy-to-use version of the Gear VR. "The secret [with VR] is it can't just be slightly better than other experiences that you've had," says Cohen. "It has to be even better."

Part of the reason why the million number mark is so exciting, then, is because it'll hopefully push developers to create even more content for the platform. Cohen admits that it's sometimes a daunting task trying to get developers to spend time making VR content. "They tell us, 'Give us a call when you've a hit a million users'." Well, now they have. Plus, Cohen says, the average time that users spend on the Gear VR is around 25 minutes a day. "They're highly engaged with the product," he says.

Aside from the number of users, Oculus is also working on increasing app discovery. There's over 250 apps for Gear VR right now, but finding new content can be a problem, especially for newcomers. That's why Oculus is rolling out a revamped Oculus Home design next month, which will hopefully make it that much easier to find recently downloaded content. You'll also see a "What's New" section starting this week plus an updated library that offers deep links directly into the apps. There'll also be a social element so you can see what your friends are watching or doing.

In conjunction with the announcement, Oculus wanted to highlight several new VR experiences. They include 6x9 (available now), a Guardian-produced film that lets you feel how it's like to be in solitary confinement; Notes on Blindness: Into the Darkness (available late June), which puts you in the shoes of someone who's slowly going blind; Tactera (available late May), a real-time strategy game with holographic pieces; and lastly Nomads, which lets you explore how it's like to be in different nomadic tribes such as the Maasai in Kenya, the yak herders in Mongolia and the sea gypsies of Borneo. Nomads, which debuts today, was produced by Felix & Paul Studios, which has done other Oculus content such as Jurassic World and Wild.

Additionally, Oculus has been working on a partnership with Discovery to develop a new Deadliest Catch VR experience that'll put you on the rough seas as a virtual crew member. It'll launch next week on May 17th. There'll also be an experience called First Life, which is narrated by renown naturalist David Attenborough. It promises to bring you back 500 million years in the past and give you a first-hand look at prehistoric sea creatures.

If it seems like there's an unusual number of video experiences on this list, that's no coincidence. Seven of the top 10 most used apps on Gear VR are video-related. Eugene Wei, head of video at Oculus, says that over 2 million hours of video are consumed on the mobile headset as of last check. That includes the usual 2D movie experiences that you can watch in a virtual cinema (either via Oculus Video or a Netflix VR app) or live 180-degree streams of events like the Kentucky Derby. "But when most people talk about video and VR, they think 360-degree video," he says. "It's continuing to gain momentum."

But the problem with 360-degree content is that there's a really high barrier to entry. Creating VR video is not the same as regular video; there's still a lot that filmmakers have to figure out. It's why Facebook released the blueprints for the Surround 360 camera. Not because they want to be in the 360 camera business, but because they want more people to create content. "Our goal is to get this camera into the hands of as many creators as possible," says Wei, adding that the team has also worked to integrate consumer-level cameras like the Gear 360 and the Ricoh Theta S with the ability to upload directly to the Facebook Newsfeed.

There's also the issue with just how much bandwidth 360-degree video takes up. To get around that, Facebook developed a technology called Dynamic Streaming, which increases the quality of the video you can see but degrades the video that's off-screen. The improved display resolution of the recent Samsung phones is also integral to the Gear VR experience. "[1440p OLED screens] might not matter on a traditional phone," says Wei. "But when it comes to VR, it really makes a difference in the quality of the experience."

Storytelling in VR is also pretty different from traditional mediums. For example, take the opening credits of Game of Thrones that was created in 360-degree video. If you watched it on your phone or on your computer, it retains that same camera swooping motion you'd see on TV. But put that same experience on a headset and it starts to feel a little strange. That's why Oculus is now working on creating a special VR headset experience of the Game of Thrones title sequence that would put you in the middle of King's Landing where you'll be able to see the buildings sprouting up around you. "It's an example of the visual grammar that people have to learn," Wei says. "We have to have creative collaboration with creators to help them understand [these new] design constraints."

Right now, most VR video content is still on the short side; maybe a few minutes at most per clip. That's mostly because it's just really cost-prohibitive to create a two-hour 360-degree movie. But Cohen and Wei say there have been some legitimate interest from filmmakers on how to do exactly that. "I've heard of a few film directors who want to tackle that," says Wei. "I'm excited to see what happens."

Wei also wanted to emphasize that 360-degree content isn't unique to just video. He says that in the coming weeks, Facebook will announce support for 360-degree photos as well. You can either shoot and upload panoramic photo spheres with your phone, or use one of the aforementioned specialized cameras.

"There's this underlying belief that a mobile platform is fundamentally unserious," says E McNeill, the creator of Tactera and Darknet, both of which are video games designed for the Gear VR. "I think that's a mistake [...] The Gear VR really punches above its weight. Once you have the headset on, you're not squinting at a small screen. It's VR." Plus, Cohen says, a lot more games are making the jump from Gear VR to the Rift and vice versa, thus adding legitimacy to the platform. Dragon Front, for example, is a game that will launch concurrently on both the Rift and the Gear VR.

"Think about the kids learning five, ten, fifteen years fro now," says Cohen in regards to the Nomads VR experience. "They're not going to be using text books, when they can experience first hand what these people went through. It really creates this kind of emotional connection."

"We want to get mobile VR in the hands of as many people as possible," says Cohen. "We think we can actually change people's lives." It's an admittedly grandiose statement. But it seems that at least a million users are intrigued enough to give it a go.

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