Xu Xian: The VR Video Sector Is Full Of Opportunities And Challenges
摘要： Live-steaming video is a very important way to generate and showcase content. The Shanghai-based TV startup Whaley Technology is also experimenting possible use cases in this sector.
Xu Xian previously worked for Lenovo, with over ten years of management and development experience in mobile communication products. In October 2014, he founded Snail VR and began to focus on the R&D of VR technology. He later received an angel investment of over ten million from Legend Capital. In April 2016, Snail VR was acquired by Whaley and evolved to Whaley VR. Whaley then announced that in the coming three years the company would pour in ¥1 billion to establish a foundation for innovative industries. Whaley also stated that the company would build a VR content team of over one thousand talents and produce VR contents of ten thousand hours. Also, the company is hoping to bring about standard VR movies and TV series in two years.
What follows is Xu Xian’s talk on TiTalk, edited by TMTpost:
I want to share with you three statistics. The first statistic is from Umeng. Compared with Q1 this year, the number of users had surged by 465% in Q2; the second statistic is about the sales performance of hardware. According to our own statistic, 100 VR sets are sold in every one minute in the Chinese market. The third statistic is about the genre of VR content that users prefer: About 80% of users are interested in VR video contents, far more than other genres. These amazing statistics incent us to move further in VR video content making and user development.
Whaley’s endeavors in recorded VR content broadcast
First I want to talk about Whaley’s efforts in content development. We divide the contents into two groups: recorded ones and live broadcast ones. In the area of recorded contents, we have produced The Remix, Sing!China, The Extreme Road, SNH48, SH48 MV, Asian Idol, Electric Run, China National Folk Festival, Bordeaux Chateau, Douban Music Festival, League of Legends E-sport, Masked King, Caissa Cruise etc. Our contents can be categorized into two groups: Variety shows, which account for most of our contents, and music related ones, like MV and documentary.
Opinion on the collaboration between VR and IP
Just then Zhuang had talked about how VR teams are collaborating with IPs. We also made a few IPs, like The Remix and Sing!China, which are big hits in China. Our team has two opinions on such collaboration. Some people believe that hit IPs can help us amass a lot of users in this stage where the VR sector is still short of good contents. In addition to that, these IPs are also good for creating a good image among potential users, so we could bring favorable VR experience to the first group of users. However, if we look the other way around, popular IPs also set limits for VR shows in terms of forms as well. For example, when we were recording Sing!China, we couldn’t really do much about the show itself since it’s broadcast on TV simultaneously and it’s a show for TV at its core. You can’t just make it into a show that’s geared towards VR. Elements such as the program’s form, stage design, lighting, and the formation of cameras etc. are very crucial to the final experience of the show.
When we were making the show, it had been quite painful. We encountered lots of problems. But then we came up with a lot of ideas because of all the hardships. For instance, we installed a VR camera beside Na Ying and Wang Feng, so the audience can watch the show from the perspective of the coaches. The biggest difference in the filming session is that you have to define your perspective. You need to have a reason for where to set up the camera. In fact, we tend to make common shows with depth instead of hit VR shows with VR, because we then could make the content with more flexibility and do more about the content and story.
How to make quality VR content?
I started off with technical stuff and I want to share with you my perspectives on this.
To make VR content, you need to have a good VR camera first. We have come up with over 30 VR camera solutions and many of them were restarted. Besides that, we also modified and reinvented many VR cameras. Eventually we have around five VR shooting equipment that we use very often. We will pick whatever is suited for the show’s making period and budget.
Our most advance equipment is Jaunt One Camera, the pumpkin-head shape device in the picture. When we are filming, we use 24 cameras at the same time. Four cameras are carried will film from above, while 16 are in horizontal view angle, and 4 filming from a lower angle. And we have this cloud service that allows us to generate VR content very easily, even 360-degree panorama video. We also use other equipment as supplement, including single-lens reflex cameras, Go Pro etc. The truth is we don’t have a set standard for filming. There are many elements that will affect our decision, such as the budget, the lighting, and space etc. And you can’t really film the whole thing using just one kind of equipment. It usually takes multiple equipment to finish the process.
Jaunt One Camera’s advantage lies in its integration as they can in sync, they are powered by the same power source and we can turn them on with one switch. And it’s convenient to monitor them remotely and use cloud service to edit the content, saving lots of time. But of course, there are lots of limits as well. For example, these cameras are quite heavy, a bit expensive and product a large amount of data. If you only film with one for ten minutes, you can have about 300G of data, which is a stretch for uploading, downloading, and storing the data.
Speaking of post production, we have this statistic. When we film an episode of a variety show, we will install ten cameras. If we film for five hours, 20T of data will be generated. To process this amount of data with software like SKYBOX, AE OR AUTOPANO would take us a great deal of efforts and time.
Many people might think that VR videos lack quality. That’s caused by the network bandwidth limit. Nowadays we tend to see 4K videos as the standard for good quality. To watch a VR video that’s relatively sharp, users would need a bandwidth of at least 20m to 30m, which is a high standard in China. We have used many algorithms and technologies to improve data transmission. We have polyhedron code, VBR for example, which allows us to lower the transmission rate requirement by 50%. So you can watch clear and sharp VR videos more easily, or watch a high quality VR video with your current bandwidth.
The future of VR video – Live Shows
I am not going to talk about recorded shows further because Whaley VR has also made many attempts in the live show area. Just recently, we invested in the American live streaming tech company NextVR. We consider live shows an important channel to generate and showcase VR content, therefore we want to have more applications on this.
Why do we want to make live shows? For one thing, we believe recorded shows are more expensive to make and it takes a lot of time to make them. On the other, live shows are always new and up to date, so we can generate contents fast, which will fix the lack of content in the VR industry.
We have gone through many live show cases before: football match, China’s national team, and FA Cup; concerts, like SNH48’s final competition, To The Youth Concert, KunlunFight, Joker’s concert etc.; sports events like the squash game we made before.
For us, live shows are a technological challenge. First of all, live shows require a stable front end that ensure smooth filming and provide stable and efficient VR video output. And it should be able to achieve real-time rendering and jointing of the VR videos. As for the transmission side, our code rate optimization technology is very useful for live streaming shows, which can effectively reduce the up-going and down-going the bandwidth.
Interactive live show is one of Whaley VR’s future application directions. The two pictures below are about the Shanghai old Chrysler VS Associazione Calcio Milan Elite game. Before people entered the stadium, you can choose from the red team or blue team and sit on your side according to the color. People who have been to any game or have watched a live game before would know it’s pretty difficult to notice some details of the match. So we put a big screen in front of the grandstand and connected it with traditional live signal, so you can enjoy the live atmosphere and see every detail. We bring together the advantage of VR panorama effect and traditional live-streaming signal.
Besides that, users can also interact with voice and comment on the match. They can even check out the players’ status. All of these will be brought to you through the form of AR on the grass field. There are also many cameras installed in different points for you to switch from. You can watch the game from the angel of where the coaches are, or you can switch to the site near the goal when the competitions moves to there.
Whaley VR will further test out live-streaming technologies, including VR cameras, and technologies of platform. We are open to cooperation in the industry. If any startup company or content developers have issues in these areas, we are willing to provide support to help make better content. We are planning to make our hardware and software training, including post production training, available to other content development teams in the future.
Jia Yin: VR live shows are limited by the bandwidth and the equipment. And football matches happen fast and the whole scene is large… what experience Whaley has on these matters?
Xu Xian:The network bandwidth limit has been a great challenge for us in VR live shows. If you want to have an appealing good show the definition should reach 4K, as it’s the standard for good quality. To watch a VR video that sharp users would need a bandwidth of at least 20m to 30m, which is a high standard in China. We have used many algorithms and technologies to improve data transmission. We have polyhedron code, VBR for example, which allows us to lower the transmission rate requirement by 50%. So currently to achieve high quality video streaming we will need 6m bandwidth now, which is still a high standard for many places. Our goal in the long run is reduce the bandwidth requirement by 20% to 30%. So maybe in two years and the bandwidth continues to develop, this issues will be fixed.
On the scene, or space issue, we do have our experience, which is put how many cameras there and where to put them. It’s true that bigger space requires more cameras, such as a football field. People who have been to any game or have watched a live game before would know it’s pretty difficult to notice some details of the match since it’s just to big an arena for the cameras to capture. So we put a big screen in front of the grandstand and connected it with traditional live signal, so you can enjoy the live atmosphere and see every detail. We bring together the advantage of VR panorama effect and traditional live-streaming signal.
Jia Yin: Three years, a foundation of ¥1 billion, a VR content team of ten thousand hours, standard VR movie and TV series…Whaley VR has announced the plan for five months, is there any progress yet? What specific plans do you have?
Xu Xian: We showed three numbers on the press conference in April: one billion, one thousand, and ten thousand hours, within three years. Today I want to share with your about our latest development. As for the investment layout, we have teamed up with MSG and Jaunt to establish Jaunt China, with the main goal to promote Jaunt filming equipment and VR image processing technology. Second is to help Chinese CP make better content. Also, we want to bridge the gap between China and America with Jaunt’s platform.
We also made an investment in NextVR recently, a leading VR live-streaming technology company in the U.S. Why would us invest in NextVR? We saw the potential benefits that VR can bring to sports event live shows, which are really good contents, and talked to NextVR about it. We want to bring their technologies to China. We plan to apply NextVR’s technologies in sports event live shows at the end of this year or early next year.
One-thousand-people VR content team. We are communicating with many teams on cooperation. To be honest, there are still a lot of obstacles currently, including the difficulty in cashing in. And like what Zhuang had said before, you don’t have a reference or let’s say model in this sector. Now we want to bring forth something of quality to the market then maybe we would considering making product placement or something. We will first test out potential models since money motivates content development teams.
Ten thousand hours of content is our goal. Let’s leave the time out first. So far we already have one thousand contents, but lack the total time. That’s where we are working towards. In my opinion, the speed to generate new contents will be faster and faster in six months or one year.
Jia Yin: The industry is busy forming their layout in the VR sector, but is it still hard to make money? What thoughts do you have on this?
Xu Xian: I think it’s still early for C-end users to achieve profit, which is in line with Zhang’s opinion(CEO of HotCast, Zhang Qinghao). In my opinion, I think advertising will be the first direction that will bring profits, that is to put ads in VR videos. I remember that the conversion rate of ads on smart phone is 2%, while the conversion rate of VR videos would be 20-30% higher. So you can see just how much of attention VR can get from its users and how big of an influence VR can have on the audience. VR shows more value in advertising than smart phones.
Secondly I think live shows will stimulate consuming behavior. For example, people can pay for VR live shows of football matches, or concerts. Using just a bit of money users would be able to enjoy a show as if they are there, why not? I think people will pay for that.
TV program director of Beijing TV: Hi, Xu Xian. When will Extreme Road be available on Whaley? What’s the design of this documentary? Is is just a documentary that showcases natural wonders? Does the documentary have any breakthrough compared with previous non-VR documentaries?
Xu Xian: We have finished shooting Extreme road but we are still processing the raw materials. This is the first time for us to film a complete video with Jaunt in China. So we are still making improvements on the process. It’s probable that we have a complete product out in late October. As for the story line, Extreme Road is more than just a documentary that showcases natural wonders. We filmed a Tibetan wedding and a debate of Buddhism, as well as the Ongkor Festival that takes place every 12 years. There will be three main stories and we plan to have four complete videos. Each video will be 15-20 minutes long.
TV program director of Beijing TV: When using Jaunt to shoot Sing!China, the studio had a rather strong lighting and contrast, but the ultimate video is great. Did you achieve that with the equipment or through post production adjustments?
Xu Xian: We have used Jaunt in Sing!China, but we didn’t use it for the whole production. When the lighting situation is very complex, we prefer to use Sony’s single-lens reflex camera as it has better performance in low light or strong light contrast circumstances. We did some adjustments in the post production but didn’t change much.
One of the reasons why we didn’t use Jaunt to shoot the whole show is that it also takes a lot of time to deal with the video in the post production. Secondly it’s the limit of the weight and dimension of the equipment, provided the set was pretty big. Sony’s sensors can do a decent job in a low light situation, sometimes even better than Jaunt cameras in some occasions.
TV program director of Beijing TV: Nowadays it seems companies are crazy with making VR apps for smart phones, does Whaley VR have any cooperation on content with Chinese or overseas headset makers?
Xu Xian: Yes, we do. And we also have cooperation with other with other hardware makers. There are just too many smart phones out there as China has 700 million smart phone users. Whaley VR app will be open to cooperation with all hardware makers.
[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Jia Yin, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]
Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.