Virtual Reality: Entertainment’s Ever-Changing Landscape Keeps Expanding

The Simpsons
Frank Micelotta/ FOX
THE SIMPSONS: In celebration of the 600th episode of THE SIMPSONS, the creative team behind the show and representatives from Google Spotlight Stories demonstrate the Couch Gag, “Planet of the Couches,” in VR via Google Spotlight Stories and Google Cardboard in the milestone 600th episode of the animated series, the all new “Treehouse of Horror XXVII,” airs Sunday, Oct 16 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT), on FOX. Cr: Frank Micelotta/ FOX. © 2016 FOX Broadcasting Co.

The latest entertainment craze is just getting started, and we are on the cusp of being in over our heads with virtual reality content. Sony, Oculus, HTC, Samsung and Google are at the forefront of creating the headsets that can bring you to a different world, but what is virtual reality (aka “VR”)? The Virtual Reality Society defines the technology the best as, “presenting our senses with a computer generated virtual environment that we can explore in some fashion.”

By tricking your senses, VR makes you feel like you are inside a different world. Basically, VR is as close to reality as entertainment can (currently) get. Every part of the industry has slowly been making a move towards VR content, and television is no different. Viewers can now watch sports, news and some of their favorite shows on a VR device. Get ready because VR is only going to get bigger and better.

VR As a Promotional Tool

Over the past year, many TV networks have put together short, promotional VR experiences to give fans a new way to get hooked on shows. If you want to go inside your favorite show, then consider these options. To celebrate their 600th episode, The Simpsons’ creators teamed up with Google to create a “Planet of the Couches” VR gag, which gives a 360-degree view of the Planet of the Apes spoof and includes content that didn’t air during the episode. AMC also used VR to promote the premiere of The Walking Dead with two VR videos that make you feel like you are about to be a zombie’s dinner.

HBO released a Game of Thrones VR video on Facebook in April to simulate a journey through the show’s epic opening credits sequence, while Netflix joined in on the fun to give fans of Stranger Things a chance to go inside an intense sequence based on a scene from the show. If you love Quantico and wondered what it’s like to go on an FBI mission, ABC put together a VR experience that allows fans to go on a mission with Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy) and Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers).

RELATED: The Simpsons Producers Preview The “Treehouse of Horror” Virtual Reality Couch Gag

A New Way to View Sports

For the first time, sports came to VR this year to give you the experience of sitting in the stands without leaving your home. NBC provided 85 hours of VR content during the Rio Olympics. Fox Sports became the first network to broadcast football in VR through the Fox Sports VR app on September 17, making the Ohio State vs. Oklahoma game available in full VR. They also broadcasted the October 8th game between Oklahoma and Texas in VR.

The NBA has partnered with Samsung and NextVR to live-stream one game per week through League Pass on Samsung Gear VR headsets this season. The league plans to roll out games onto other VR compatible devices soon. “The NBA has always been at the forefront of innovation,” says NextVR CEO and co-founder Dave Cole. “We conducted our first content test with the NBA three years ago in VR and since then, there has been a significant evolution with the technology. We have combined the best elements of an in-person game viewing and the traditional televised broadcasts to create the ideal viewing experience. Basketball is ideally suited for VR because of the nature of the sport, the size of the arena and court, and the intimacy with the players.”

NextVR has more VR sports experiences on the way. “Given the global appeal of sports such as basketball and soccer, NextVR puts fans around the world 10 feet away from their favorite players by enabling experiences through our unrivaled technology and live broadcasts,” Cole says. “We signed a five-year deal with Fox Sports that facilitated our live broadcasts of the Daytona 500, the US Open golf tournament, the Bundesliga soccer season opener, the Premier Boxing Championships and more.”

RELATED: In Your Face! The U.S. Olympic Basketball Team Scores a Samsung VR Series

Making the News New Again

News executives are utilizing VR as a way to make their stories relevant. The idea is to compel audiences to watch the news by being able to experience it instead of watching from a distance. NBC offers VR videos of concerts, political events (including the fall’s first presidential debate), news pieces and even swimming with sea turtles. CBS created a behind-the-scenes VR look at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to show the prep work for the Mars 2020 mission. ABC has made some news pieces that will take viewers to locales like Syria, North Korea and Nepal.

Streaming Sites

Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix have different approaches when it comes to VR content. Amazon is looking to take the lead by developing original VR shows. While that is still in development, Netflix and Hulu already have their own VR apps. Netflix VR allows users to watch a show or movie from a quaint cabin, giving you a nice and cozy feeling. If you don’t feel like using the cabin, you can bypass it for a full-screen mode. However, Netflix doesn’t offer any original VR content or 360-degree experiences yet.

Hulu is way ahead of Netflix. The service’s VR app offers content from a big-screen theater, a modern living room or from a beach. Original VR content includes 360-degree videos from current shows. The Hulu app (as well as Netflix’s) allows fans to enjoy their favorite TV shows and movies comfortably without any interruption or disturbances, simulating a movie theater experience. Hulu is happy to give people a taste of their content in VR because, “Virtual reality gives viewers the opportunity to literally experience the story and have a visual, auditory and visceral reaction,” says Noah Heller, the company’s vice president of emerging technology. “As an immersive experience, virtual reality changes the way viewers experience entertainment and the way that storytellers are able to connect with their viewers.”

VR and Comic-Con Collide

With VR becoming big in entertainment, it was no surprise that the format took over both San Diego and New York Comic Cons this year. In San Diego, many shows brought VR experiences, including Mr. Robot, American Horror Story, Teen Wolf, The Man in the High Castle, and Rick and Morty. New York featured a much smaller “VR Con,” which included The Man in the High Castle and Westworld. Both of New York Comic Cons big TV VR experiences brought viewers into the world of the respective show. Westworld’s VR experience was especially notable. HBO fully committed to the experience by having an off-site experience where hosts greeted people in the lobby. Fans got to feel like a part of the show by picking a hat and a gun, completing shooting training, and delving into the Westworld park. Just like the show, things go south fast, and it turns out that you are also a host. Bringing fans into the world of the shows is a great promotional tool, as was mentioned earlier. VR should have an even bigger presence at both conventions next year, and we may eventually see standalone VR conventions with this type of content in the future.

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How to Participate in VR

If you are intrigued by VR and want to check it out for yourself, it’s a lot simpler than you think. There are a couple ways to use VR. The best experiences come via a VR headset from Oculus, Samsung or HTC. If you are looking for a good experience with minimal cost, purchased or DIY cardboard headsets are a good choice. Finally, if you don’t want to go through the trouble of buying or making a headset, there are plenty of 360-degree VR videos that can be watched in 2D on your mobile device or computer. There are so many exciting things going on with VR that it’s hard to keep up with them all. With many great experiences to choose from, which will you try first?