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Sony’s streaming service Crackle unveils its plans for VR content…and VR ads

TechCrunch TechCrunch 20/04/2016 Sarah Perez

VR content will soon be arriving on yet another digital streaming service – this time, Sony’s Crackle. But it will also include VR-enabled ads, the company announced today. That is, in addition to streaming its entire content library – including movies and original programs –  in a special “VR theater,” it will also allow advertisers to “skin” this theater with logos and integrate their own 360 degree ads.

These plans were announced today Crackle’s upfront presentation held in New York City, and come shortly after rivals HBO and Discovery unveiled their own investments in VR technology. Earlier this week, the networks invested in 3D graphics firm OTOY with plans to bring VR content to their own properties, including HBO NOW and Discovery VR.

Digital streaming service rivals Netflix and Hulu have also previously announced their own VR plans, and have been rolling out VR content.

What Sony says makes its offering unique is that it has already jumped ahead to thinking about how the new format can be monetized. While most video content providers are still experimenting with VR programming, Crackle says it’s the first ad-supported video-on-demand network to provide a VR-based advertising opportunities for brands.

In practice, here’s how this would work, as Crackle describes it.

It’s developing a virtual theater environment where its videos will be displayed to those who are watching using a VR headset, or another supported device. The company says it will develop for smartphones, Google Cardboard, Samsung’s Gear VR, and PlayStation VR. (Facebook’s Oculus Rift, a top competitor to Sony’s own VR plans, was not mentioned as being supported.)

The theater is a fully-immersive viewing environment where consumers can choose to stream any of Crackle’s content. While the videos play on the theater’s screen, viewers who gaze around the virtual venue will be able to see advertiser’s logos and ads elsewhere – like on walls or seats, perhaps. Advertisers will also be able integrate their own 360-degree commercials into this experience.

The company has lined up a debut advertiser for this new offering. LG will be using the ads to promote its new LG G5 flagship smartphone and its “Friends” – a marketing term referring to its host of accessories, which includes an accompanying VR headset and 360-degree camera.

LG has created 360-degree “behind the scenes” footage shot by its LG 360 Cam which will be used to promote Crackle’s upcoming original drama series, “StartUp,” starring Martin Freeman. The series, which arrives in Q3 2016, focuses on tech entrepreneurship from the “wrong side of the tracks.” (The entrepreneurs decide to fund their company with dirty money, form gang ties, and more.)

Given its tech angle, it makes sense that “StartUp” would be the first where these new “VR” ad formats are tested.

In addition to making its library available for streaming in this VR theater, Crackle ordered a VR special of its original stop-motion animated series “SuperMansion,” exec-produced by Bryan Cranston and Stoopid Buddy Stoodies (“Robot Chicken”).

And the company says it will be producing other VR content from its current slate of original programming, which will also be able to be sponsored by advertisers.

“At Crackle, we believe that creating content and ad experiences that mirror changing consumer habits are instrumental for driving viewer attention,” said Crackle General Manager and EVP, Sony Pictures Television Digital Networks, Eric Berger. “We’re charting a path for television with a sustainable ad model that is a win for the advertiser, the network and most importantly, the consumer.”

Despite the fact that Crackle is investing in VR and VR advertising, like all the major players in the industry, it doesn’t know what VR’s impact to the bottom line will end up being. Companies don’t know if viewers will watch regularly using VR technologies (or view 360 degree videos), or what’s considered a good measure of engagement. Similarly, it’s hard to say what sort of metrics VR advertisers would want to see.

Along with the VR news, Crackle also unveiled more details about its upcoming originals, including “StartUp,” auction house drama “The Art of More,” “Snatch” (based on the Guy Ritchie movie), and new seasons of Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “SuperMansion,” at the event.

It also introduced an ad format called “break-free” advertising, which reduces the number of ads per series. Instead of 300 ads over a 10-episode series, viewers only see 5 per episode. But only five advertisers get a spot in those episodes, allowing them to tell stories using more creative narratives and story arcs.

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