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How do you distribute VR content? (especially during Covid)

Welcome back to Episode 14 of my 31 day challenge where I am answering your questions about creating a career or a business that you love and today, I am answering the question, how do you distribute VR content, especially during COVID times? So we're going to be diving into that today.


This is a full transcript of the podcast, instead you can listen here:

Let's get to actually dive into the subject. How do you distribute VR content, especially during COVID? So I think to begin with, let's talk about distribution in general for VR. Now, this is a particularly interesting subject to me, because I think like most creators, the whole point of making VR work is to get it seen, right? I mean, we all work in this industry, we all know how powerful this technology can be, we all get excited, when we put that headset on and we're transported to a different world, we're excited to tell stories in this medium and yet, the hardest thing to kind of come to terms with and wrestle with is the fact that you are just not going to get the same amount of eyeballs on your work as if you were doing it in other mediums and that's really challenging sometimes, and a lot of the time, you have to kind of decide very early on whether or not you want to go for a slightly bigger audience or a slightly smaller audience, which will dictate how you kind of go about doing your Bureau, your project. I could be wrong, because some people might argue that, no, you do what's best for the project, and then you will find your audience and, you know, the whole famous saying of like if you build it, they will come but I fundamentally disagree with that. Maybe there's you know, the odd piece of work that does kind of, you know, make it and taken hold of by the media and people just flock to it regardless but in general scenarios for the majority of people, that's just not going to be the case. Deciding on your distribution plan for your VR project, whether that be an original project, like a passion project, or a narrative project or something that you're building just for yourself, or whether that be a client project, deciding on that distribution upfront is so important. I cannot tell you how important it is for you to make these decisions first. I've heard horror stories of people working on projects, and then only to realise that they're incompatible with. For example, it's no secret that on the festival circuit, festivals will only have access to certain equipment and therefore certain kind of technical specifications will sometimes be the deciding factor whether or not your piece gets shown and I know for pPlaying God, the most recent original project that we worked on, premiered at Raindance Film Festival which is probably one of the biggest VR film festivals, well film festivals that has a VR arm to it. As of recording this, and although, you know that might change in future, of course, but that’s a brilliant well respected, fantastic festival. It brings together some of the best VR work in the world, like we have pieces that premiere, Venice and and Tribeca, and Sundance and all those kind of things. They come and they have their UK premiere usually at Raindance. I remember specifically when when we found out that Playing God got in, it was amazing, It was exciting, we were so stoked to have our piece premiere, it's such a big festival and we were we were over the moon. And then the reality hits that we had built this project for while we'd been mainly building it on HTC Vive, and all of a sudden, we had a four or five week window to make this piece work on an Oculus Go and still be interactive and still have the same kind of immersion as if you were seeing it in a sixth headset purely because Maria, the fantastic curator for Raindance really wanted to programme it, as part of a specific strand. That specific strand was going to be shown on the Oculus Go, so we didn't have a choice, we had to make it work and it was always our plan to make it work for Oculus Go, that was always our intention, because we always wanted to make it as accessible as possible but that process was so painful, I cannot describe to you how many late nights our poor developer, Dom, spent and the amount of time that myself and Ben, the writer and director had to work on it. We had to bang our heads together to logistically work out how we were going to make that deadline and many of beers in the office during those times, let me tell you. So that was like, an example of some of the ways that you're going to come across distribution, kind of decisions that you need to make and that's going to impact your budget, that's going to impact your timeline, that's going to impact everything. Then when it comes to actually getting out to a mainstream, a more mainstream audience, again, that's going to be really important. I mean, the reason why we had always planned for Playing God to be accessible on Oculus Go was because we knew that we wanted to show it, because it was a project funded by Arts Council England, we wanted to make sure that we could do a local grassroots tour and showcase it on affordable headsets. We wanted to get more people watching it because you could have more people watching it at the same time and also be less of a risk for a venue to want to put it on because it wouldn't cost as much for them to hire in their kits. It would be less work to have staff there to be able to train them up to learn how to use it, they wouldn't have to hire in you know, laptops as well as Vives, as well as, you know, setting up the base stations as well as having staff there to troubleshoot if it went wrong, etc, etc.


Now, I sound so far like, I'm basically just shitting all over the distribution because I am absolutely yes, no one in VR, will say that the distribution is perfect at the moment but all I'm kind of saying is just to make sure that you are aware that when you are building projects in VR, you have to consider distribution right at the top, you have to know how you're going to be distributing it right from the beginning of your project. It's so important, it dictates everything. So once you've had once you've got an idea basically the kind of ecosystem you want it to sit on, so you know that it's you know, you ideally want it to end up on Quest Bar, and, you know, whatever you choose, then it's kind of thinking about - okay, well do I want it to be a app that is accessible on the store? So do I want you know anyone at home with an Oculus, to be able to download that from the store? And if so, again you need to look into that process ahead of time because from experience with what we've kind of been going through trying to get Playing God onto the Quest store, apart from kind of running into budget issues, to actually get the coding finished to translate over, to be a Quest experience. And you know, Oculus are very, very picky with what they want on the Quest store, you have to go through a whole kind of procurement, because that sounds fancy, a whole process where they basically vet your project to see if it's good enough to go on the store. So, you know, if you want access to that audience, it’s not necessarily going to be as easy as just going directly there and I would say one of the easiest ways to distribute is obviously, if you create, if it's like a non interactive project, uploading it to some kind of Web XR page, or just having it as kind of like an experience that sits on someone else's store. So YouTube VR is a massive one, if you've got a 360 project, you could easily have it on there but the only downside of that, and one of the reasons why I've never uploaded any of my projects to be publicly available on YouTube VR, is purely because I always want to safeguard the fact that people are watching in a headset. And the truth is, as we've talked about before, if you distribute on Facebook, or YouTube 99%, of people… I don't know that statistic exactly but I would imagine 99% of people will not watch it in a headset and that's absolutely fine. If your project lends itself to being a magic window, desktop or mobile 360 experience, but if you want people to have that fully immersive experience, if you want them to see in a headset, that might not be the way to go. Maybe you want to contact platforms? Like via ER, or Amaze VR or Within. Within is obviously one of the biggest and they are the most I guess…artsy. They're the Vimeo, the Netflix of VR. They've got really well curated, beautiful artistic projects, it really depends on obviously what your project is.


Another way is obviously to go through a service like Hijack or a service like Controverse, and some other apps, where you can kind of build your own app that distributes across all the different platforms, and also have the built in capability to be able to showcase in person with multiple people. So that's something where, I mean, I've never personally used any of those services just because whenever I distribute things as a bespoke app, we will always build the bespoke app in house and in fact, again, for those of you who kind of know a bit of my backsory…in 2018, when me and my brother teamed up to build Subconscious VR, which was basically a kind of like, a white labelled interactive app that allows you to kind of create and distribute interactive 360 experiences. I feel like I say this every time I bring it up, but the story of that will be for another episode but what we kind of built, was an infrastructure behind the scenes. So we always just published ours, using our bespoke platform. I'm very fortunate to have kind of had access to that, but if you don't have access to it, one of the services which will allow you to white label an app to publish again, this will be great if you work with clients, and just making something look more professional, but also gives you that security of the fact that it's this private kind of hosted app, you know that someone's only going to see on a VR headset. It's easy for a client to use, but also it allows you to get that reach it allows you to kind of control, you know who's watching it, how many people are watching it. If you're all together, you can have synchronised experiences, even if you're apart. I mean one of the biggest kind of things that I've not done yet, but it's something that me and my brother talk about all the time, which is something that our app is capable of doing but we just haven't tried it yet is having a worldwide synchronised VR experience. So you know getting enough people signed up and getting everyone to tune in exactly at the same time, or there were certain slots where you had to tune in and then it became like the festival experience where it was a synchronised experience and you were seeing it with with your fellow VR audiences around the world. Then maybe you jump into a forum or a Zoom chat afterwards to kind of discuss the pieces and get that kind of interaction, then that excitement and that discussion afterwards, which is kind of what the film festivals are all about, right? I mean, God loves them, but I very rarely enjoy actually being in the VR headset during those because I'm so desperate to just get to talk to people and of course, so much of that is being in the headset and having that communal experience and then coming out and discussing and you know, getting excited or getting into debates over what is good and bad.


So that would be my ideal distribution strategy. One where, you know, I could distribute to the most high spec but widely accessible headset, which is probably the Quest just right now, as of recording, that would be ideal. Theoretically that could happen, I would love to organise a big, especially during COVID, some kind of big premiere worldwide synchronised experience where everyone could watch at the same time, just like on YouTube, how they have the kind of premiere feature where you know, you can be there and you can see it on demand afterwards but you could be there, if you're a hardcore fan or if you're like someone that's so curious about a particular project, like there's some projects coming in the pipeline and from some of friends in the VR industry that I'm so desperate to see. I would love it, if they said - next Tuesday, we're getting together, all in our Quest’s, and we're going to have a synchronised experience, I'd be so into that. So and then we're gonna you know, then we're gonna meet up in outer space afterwards and and have a chat about it, that would be so cool. Like, that's what this technology allows, you know? The whole point of VR is to be able to kind of transcend distance, to transcend being a part so that we can feel like we're together even when we're not. So I think there's like some really cool things you could maybe use this time to experiment with. But again, when it comes down to is, what is your end goal? Is your end goal to kind of reach a small audience, who are thoughtful, and almost like a bit curated? Because they are very, very specific, and you want to have an intimate experience with them, then maybe something like that, a synchronised VR experience where you then meet up in old space or something afterwards to discuss, maybe that's the way to go?

If you want mass reach, in fact just today, a friend of mine messaged me saying - oh, you'll never guess what this big fashion brand are about to do? Because they can't do the fashion show on the runway, this summer, they're gonna roll out mass google cardboard headsets and do a virtual showing, which to me is really funny, because as I said to her, I was like, that's so funny, because literally brands have been doing this since 2016. Like, I'm fairly certain that the New York Times did exactly that. Back in 2016, they rolled out, you know, they gave every reader of the newspaper, a free copy of Google Cardboard, and people could experience something together. So you know, that's also a way to go and that's quite cheap. That's something that I know has been kind of rolled out in things like the hospitals and things during COVID, to give people that kind of mindfulness experience, that therapeutic benefit of VR, you know, hospitals and care homes they've been using cardboard so that they're single use, because obviously one of the problems at the moment with COVID, especially if you're in a communal showing setting, is the hygiene side of it and making sure that you're not, you know, kind of cross contaminating people with this sweaty box that they've had on their face. So Google Cardboard is making a little bit, funnily enough, is making a little bit of a comeback because it's single use, and it's cheap. And yes, of course, there are going to be many, many, many, many people that say that putting a mobile phone and a Google Cardboard is not the same as having a fully interactive room scale virtual reality experience but that in itself is the problem with VR. If the only version of VR that you could show was like in the 60s where literally, there was like one massive, multi million dollar pound machine that lived in this one Silicon Valley office and that was literally the only place in the world that people can experience virtual reality, how many people got to experience that? Like a handful? Now, there's this spectrum of VR distribution and I would say, don't be scared to tap into multiple avenues. I would say absolutely know what you're trying to achieve with the piece because for example, with my next original project, we will be building for something like the Quest first, purely so that we can go after a very curated, a very high spec, kind of roll out first and then we will kind of be writing versions of the IP that work on different platforms. I'll be writing a version or like kind of editing it slightly and making it so that it's a slightly different experience for 360 user, but it's still powerful, it still means that I can get it out to people who haven’t experienced VR before.


So yeah, the question was, how do you distribute VR, especially during COVID? And I hope that throughout the years, I've kind of covered a few different bases. I hope that that gives you a good idea. I think, number one, again, you just need to decide on, do you want to go after a mass audience first? Or are you going after more curated? But also have empathy for your end user because VR is still so new to so many people and not everyone, even like the recent awards that I was just judging, not all of those judges have access to the higher spec stuff. I got sent like a laptop to connect my Quest to turn into a Rift, but I don't have a rift at home, I don't have a vibe at home. So you know, it's like, even within the industry, not everyone uses the same technology, not everyone has the same tech literacy. So imagine what that's like for the average person that doesn't really even know what VR is. You have to kind of think about that.


First, you have to think about the ease of use, you have to think about how user friendly is this experience, and therefore, if it's meant to be user friendly, if I want to build an app, that is purely just like a relaxation app, that’s going to help old people living in care homes during these horrendous times or sending them 360 video messages of their family at home because they can't physically be with them right now, well, I'm not going to create that experience for vive, because that just completely defeats the point because no care home is going to be able to actually facilitate that. Whereas doing that for a Google Cardboard or an Oculus Go, makes total sense and making it as easy as possible for them to use that makes total sense. So really think about your audience first.


So I hope that's helpful. I would love to hear your follow up to any of this. You can reach out to me on @alexmakesvr across any of the social medias, you can send me an email, alexmakesvr@gmail.com and if you want to sign up for the newsletter to be reminded when these episodes go live, you can sign up for the newsletter at www.alexmakesvr.com.


I hope you're having an amazing day wherever you are in the world and I'll speak to you tomorrow.

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