Today, Hulu launched its VR app for Samsung’s Gear VR — a headset compatible with Samsung Galaxy phones and driven by Oculus.
The Hulu VR app is a lot like the regular Hulu app, with a few crucial distinctions. Obviously, there’s VR content — in this context, that means 360-degree short films and experiences like The Big One — a short film that lets viewers spectate a meteor shower and more than 25 others from creators like Discovery Communications, The National Geographic Channel, and Showtime networks. But there’s also an important variable that’s likely going to appear more and more in our conversations about what VR “is” — virtual cinema capabilities.
First, let’s establish one thing: Samsung’s Gear VR is the affordable “mid-range” VR. It’s a big step above Cardboard, but is still wildly different from “true VR” — the likes of HTC Vive, Sony’s Playstation VR and Oculus Rift. It doesn’t have wild frame-rates, fancy controllers or advanced eye- and head-tracking. It also doesn’t require a robust PC setup.
One hallmark of Gear VR, though, has been the VR Cinema application, which allows users to watch 2D and stereoscopic movies in a virtual movie-theater environment within the headset. The room is tall, the screen is big, there are rows of theater seats in front of you; and you’ve got the place all to yourself.
Hulu’s VR app extends that idea, allowing users to stream all of the 2D content available on Hulu in virtual cinema environments, whether it’s a movie theater, a private island set-up, or a virtual living room that’s definitely way nicer than your real one.
Why is this significant? Well, as you’ve likely heard time and time again, VR is still in its infancy. We will likely see narrative storytelling and VR filmmaking do some pretty astonishing things in the next few years as true VR headsets arrive at the mainstream market. But for most immersive video VR experiences are what we’ll see on the Hulu VR app: short films and short 360-degree video experiences.
There must be something that keeps users coming back to the headset after they’ve watched every 2-5 minute clip several times. For those who aren’t big gamers, that something will likely be the virtual cinema.
While it may be difficult to grasp why this is significant if you’ve never strapped on a headset or viewed content through the lens of VR, it’s not difficult to imagine how being able to replicate the movie theater setting (sans people talking, cell phones going off and kids kicking the back of your seat) is an attractive possibility. Even big, expensive televisions sort of pale in comparison to a screen that feels a few dozen feet tall.
That said, a vital element to the long-term success of living-room VR is going to be comfort. Gear VR certainly has an advantage in that you can lie down or do some #extremeslouching and watch a film by simply calibrating your head’s position. But mainstream consumers are still going to eventually want something that’s comfortable to wear for hours while binge-watching Star Trek: Voyager.
Hulu’s VR app release is a significant step for VR, even if its only available to the select market with Gear VR headsets for now. It tells us a lot about where we’re likely headed with consumer VR, and some of what we can likely expect as we watch Netflix, Amazon and other content providers debut their own VR apps.