Comcast-backed start-up NextVR uses NAB to show it can take pay-TV viewers to the game

LAS VEGAS - Before I get into cheerleading for the VR demos I just saw at NAB, you should know that I'm not easily swayed by new display technologies. 

Six years ago, in another epoch of my career, I routinely threw shade at 3D theatrical distribution — and by extension, 3D home entertainment — while covering the motion picture industry for a shrill Hollywood blog. I was criticized by colleagues in the post-Avatar era as lacking vision. This time, 3D was not a gimmick, they'd tell me.

But for every auteur like James Cameron, who took painstaking efforts to make the 3D experience seem vaguely worthwhile, there were a dozen hack executions (Warner Bros.' slapped-together 3D visuals on Clash of the Titans comes to mind) that made the technology seem like a cynical cash grab.

I didn't think the upgrade in viewing experience — inconsistent as it was — was worth the expense and effort. 

It was a good call — 3D TV became a non-factor in home entertainment, with ESPN ultimately abandoning its full-fledged 3D channel, and consumer electronics brands eventually terminating 3DTV product lines. The technology lives on at your local multiplex as a permanent fixture, albeit a niche one.

David Cole was overseeing a Laguna Beach, Calif. company called Next3D back in 2012 when the 3D TV market — in his words — "had a heart attack."

"We were founded in 2009 around stereoscopic compression technology for 3D television," Cole said. "We worked with Turner, we also worked with ESPN."

After the crash, Cole said, his company "made a really aggressive decision to pivot; to deliver virtual reality programming using our broadcast platform. Because we had the foundation we had, we were up and running real fast."

VR, he said, was just beginning to show "green shoots," and his company already knew how to efficiently compress dense 3D files and render 3D video. Taking it 360 degrees was a natural extension.

These days, Cole's NextVR is backed with $30.5 million in venture funding from sources including Comcast Ventures, Time Warner Inc., the Madison Square Garden Company and media mogul Peter Guber. 

The company specializes in perhaps the most killer of all apps in the 360-degree viewing market — broadcasting live events in the format. 

And its NAB demo, conducted on a Samsung Gear VR headset, lived up to the hype. You watch 40 seconds of an NBA game featuring the Guber-owned Golden State Warriors, and you can't miss the possibilities for applications like live sports.

For decades, programmers, CE companies and operators have talked about the viewing experience getting to be so good, it's like "being at the game." This is as close as I've ever gotten to a courtside seat without a major hit to my AMEX -- right down to being able to look up at the scoreboard.

Even with the resolution limitations of the Gear VR, the NextVR presentation was a fairly precise simulation of sitting in thousand-dollar-a-ticket court-side seats for the defending NBA champions.  

Cole says NextVR, which just finished broadcasting the PGA's Masters tournament, is producing one live event a week in the format. It even has a deal to VR-cast events broadcast by Fox Sports.

When the company is broadcasting game in 360-degree VR, Stub Hub and everyone else in the live events business could have a problem. In an age when video consumers are increasingly choosing personal viewing experiences on mobile devices, an actual, monetizable market isn't hard to envision.

Later, I ventured into a VR presentation conducted by media tech services giant Technicolor. The company was showing off a nine-minute video produced by The Guardian newspaper, in which the viewer spends the entire time poking around a prison cell used for solitary confinement.

The video was inspired by activism — thousands of prisoners find themselves in this dubiously humane situation. The highly immersive short VR experience makes the viewer understand their plight in a way a 90-minute linear TV documentary never could. It was a poweful experience.

I think the pay-TV industry might consider moving a little more aggressively on the VR front -- it's a thing. 

Currently, NextVR's broadcasts live on the company's online portal, where the company is steadily building an audience for itself. But Cole sees partnership potential for operators like Comcast.

He envisions NextVR content "cross-pollenating" content on X1 set-tops, for instance. "The cable box is exquisitely well positioned in your living room to act as a hub — a sort of local edge cache for VR content," Cole explained. 

Beyond the VR presentations, I had largely "meh" reactions to other demos I took in at NAB this seek. I'm about as minimally blown away by HDR presentations as I have been for 4K — I don't know, my eyes just may not be good enough to be impressed. Likewise with "augmented reality" -- I don't see an obvious application outside gaming. 

But there was one other thing I found pretty compelling. Technicolor is working with Harvard Medical School to develop a new video storage technology based on synthetic DNA that can, with vast amounts of compression, store endless quantities of video files for 10,000 years or more.

With celluloid, as well as magnetic and optical media, having finite life spans, DNA could provide a way to store content in a way future generations will be able to read. 

Another upside: The technology is based on four variables rather than just binary ones and zeroes. 

Dr. Jean Bolet, who oversees the project for Technicolor, showed me a small vile of synthetic DNA that contained thousands of versions of a single 11-minute film.

The technology is vastly slow and expensive right now. But if equipment like DNA sequencers becomes as ubiquitous as encoders and transcoders, who knows where the possibilities might lead. --Daniel