LENS Immersive is a young Australian virtual reality (VR) and high resolution media streaming company with offices in Sydney and interests in China and Canada. Yan Chen is the CEO/CTO and Travis Rice is the Chief Content Officer. Together they co-founded LENS Immersive in 2015.
Travis Rice (Chief Content Officer) and Yan Chen (CEO/CTO)
Who are your target audiences?
Travis: We work with content creators to create ideas that work within the VR environment. We also work with businesses who license our [compression and streaming] technology to accelerate their delivery of video over various platforms, virtual reality (VR), over-the-top (OTT), mobile or traditional television.
Yan: Our business targets both businesses and consumers. Consumers can purchase content directly from our platform. Currently our platform supports all VR devices and we’re extending that support to augmented reality (AR) in the near future. It’s like Netflix for VR. From the business point of view, we offer our platform as a white label solution.
What does the consumer need by way of equipment if they were to subscribe?
Yan: All they need is a mobile capable VR device, that includes all the Samsung devices or any mobile phone that can slide into a VR headset. If they want to get more fancy they can use a high end Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Our most successful VR access device is the PlayStation VR.
LENS Immersive was the streaming and VR partner for the 2016 Melbourne Film Festival; how do you work collaboratively with the Australian film industry?
Travis: Film festival attendees who couldn’t line up on site were able to watch the film in a way that protected the filmmaker’s rights. Digital Rights Management is core to our platform. With VR, the Melbourne Film Festival saw what is happening with film festivals around the world - Sundance, Tribeca, South by South West - they are all starting to use VR cinemas to create spaces for people who don’t own a headset to consume VR content.
A VR cinema needs to have swiveling chairs, and needs to have headsets. Through our partners in Montreal (D-BOX) we’re seeing the rise of moving chairs that allow for another level of VR integration. Here in Australia we’re working with Event cinemas to do a local version. Right now their test VR cinema holds around 50 seats and they’re looking to expand it. VR in cinemas requires something like a Samsung Gear VR headset combined with another one of our products, LENS Cinema SYNC, which is a shared experience VR player. The content that works best in the cinema space is linear narrative 15 to 40 minutes long.
Tell us about your joint venture in China
Yan: China is the second largest consumer market in the world and the first and quickest adopter of VR technology so it’s a prime target for our business. We have a great partnership with a state backed media business and some strategic investors, that’s allowing us to expand very quickly into the China market. Our goal is to produce localised content for the Chinese market that will then be cross pollinated back into the international market for distribution.
What has it been like to set up a media technology business in Australia?
Yan: Australia offers great advantages to running an international company; nowadays in the modern world, especially when it comes to high tech and media, you can run a company from anywhere. But being in Australia has these core advantages; first, it’s located at the axis between Los Angeles and China and it’s in the same time zone as China. Second, the Australian Government offers great incentives in terms of R&D rebates for technology development, and a producer’s rebate for content and media development. These incentives really help young startups like ourselves to hit the ground running. Also, the talent pool in Australia is important. Australia has participated successfully in the international filmmaking business and from that we’re able to leverage a lot of great talent in terms of film makers, writers, effects houses and infrastructure you need to make a VR production. And on the technology side, Australia has universities that are very advanced, especially in the media and technology fields. Where we specialise - streaming technology and streaming media - Australia has the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the University of Sydney which offer graduates that are amongst the world’s best.
What is your advice to content makers who are considering VR?
Travis: VR is a new medium, but we can’t forget about the importance of cinematography. What makes the content compelling and will making it immersive improve it? Also, how do we think about things that work in other mediums that don’t work natively in the VR environment? We really push filmmakers to understand VR as an added tool set that allows additional versions of the same content. We can make a mobile version, a VR/MR (Mixed Reality) version, a cinematic television version of the same content; it allows that content to reach further out into the world. Content is key.
How much reconfiguring of the content is required for those different platforms, including mobile?
Travis: Quite a bit but a good story is the most important thing - this goes further with good pre-production and good producers who are aware of the possibilities ahead of time; then it works quickly and easily.
Yan: Our key advantage here in mobile is our ability to deliver 4K plus content over traditional 4G networks or even sometimes in really nice 3G environments. That has applications in geographies that are bandwidth limited like Malaysia and Thailand. In those markets mobile use has accelerated in recent years, but mobile consumption of high bandwidth data like videos hasn’t been prevalent. With our technology you can now watch standard definition or high definition content in infrastructure poor environments.
So what are your aspirations in markets outside of China and Australia?
Yan: Anywhere infrastructure is still developing we expect telecom and media providers will license our technology and use our platform to roll out streaming video services like we have here in Australia; Indonesia, Malaysia, some of the really high population density and lower infrastructure markets. India is another great example where mobile usage has gone through the roof in the past few years and the next thing these consumers will want is to consume videos on their mobiles.
What are the new revenue streams in the VR and high resolution streaming space?
Yan: In the digital age people buy apps, there are in-app purchases, there are ‘stickers’ and electronic gifts that people buy for each other. If you create a video where consumers can interact with that video, can vote on what’s happening, can buy digital gifts, then post stickers for example, you have additional micro-transactions within the video.
We’re able to offer interactive products within the video, not only can you see them but you can touch, interact and really understand what it looks like in 3D. Then you can be directed to a payment gateway or a final conversion funnel that allows you to purchase the product, all without leaving the whole 3D VR experience.
What are ‘stickers’ in this environment?
Yan: They are an animated emoji or some simple animation that you can purchase as an expression of your intent. So if you’re chatting on Facebook or elsewhere online, you can send someone a sticker to say ‘happy birthday’ - it will be an animated funny GIF of a birthday party or something that’s relevant to you and the receiver of that message. All of these digital assets now carry monetary value and in VR the experience becomes even more immersive, for example you could rain down a tickertape parade on a person because it’s their birthday.
Travis: To add to that, a lot of that sticker and digital gifting market comes from what’s happening in live and mobile streaming. People live stream what they are doing, they become like local presenters talking about the dinner they are enjoying for example, and then viewers respond with stickers for the presenter to create a quick and easy dialogue between them.
Our live streaming platform allows viewers to put on a headset and then see a completely different view from another camera – as if you were really there in that moment. If that camera is placed in an environment where people are interacting, it allows a whole new level of virtual engagement with that presenter. Recently there was a live stream of astronauts in the international space station. Viewers could see exactly what was happening and ask questions of the astronauts. Imagine that in VR.
LENS Immersive blurs technology and entertainment but sometimes skill sets are either creative OR technical. How do you approach creating a workforce where staff have to have both?
Yan: What we look for in people are two things. First, we want to make sure they understand our vision of the blending between technology and media. Do they understand what mobile consumption is? Do they understand that this is how our kids and their kids are going to be experiencing media in the years to come? Do they understand the idea of gifting through stickers? Do they understand that in VR I can skype and play Minecraft and use Twitter all at the same time? And this is rule number one, they have to be sci-fi geeks, both from a technology and a creative point of view.
Second, we look for strong foundational skills. If you are a content creator, do you really understand the language of cinema? Do you understand lighting and script writing and if you do have that foundational skill, then we will teach how to apply that in a new VR medium. Same thing on the technology front, we look for people that have a keen media interest who really want to take their technical skills and apply them to media. We’ve been very lucky in Australia to be able to find a great group of people who have those foundational skills and who have that interest as well.
What are your predictions for the future of content and particularly VR?
Travis: We expect VR to grow further into AR. That is why we see social interactions as core to how our VR environment will be used in the future. VR is limiting, once you put a headset on you are shielded in and you can only see what is in that world. Augmented and mixed reality allow you to open up the digital space, to see through and see things further on and still interact with them. Social interactivity bridges the two worlds and that’s why we expect it to have exponential growth.
What could constrain that growth?
Travis: With the VR environment we have built there is a huge demand for content. The content is not keeping up with what people are working on from a technology side. Hardware is happening, software is happening, but the content and linear narratives that people want to engage with are not happening.
Where is it going to go for media brands?
Yan: We envisage for our platform a fully immersive 3D interactive space, whether VR or AR. Let’s say an Australian production lands on our platform and the consumer is able to watch it and at the same time interact with it. For instance, you watch Dancing with the Stars, at the same time you vote on who you like on the show, at the same time you share it on social media, all without leaving the 3D immersive environment. All of a sudden you can reach out and touch the star you want to talk to, you can try a different dress on them if you really want to, you can send little video clips to your friends and say ‘Hey check out what I just saw’ and have their view in a side window right next to your main view.
The idea behind a full 3D immersive platform is that it gives you much more real estate to work with, not only for advertisers but also for content producers, to be meshed into one interactive experience.
How long before we can have that experience without putting a piece of hardware on our faces?
Yan: Technically, it can be done now with holograms. VR and AR are tethered to headsets because they rely on projecting a field of view onto a medium in front of our eyes, whether that’s a mobile phone or a clear glass screen with laser etchings on it like Microsoft’s HoloLens. Soon, in five to 10 years, we will move beyond that and what we see is just in the air in front of us. There is quite a bit of research being done into this. We are partnering with MIT and with the University of Beijing where we have some co-research underway. We are looking into the new frontier of what that immersive space will look like without headsets.