In testing our apps with the general public, one thing has become abundantly clear: the bar for VR content is high. Extremely high, in fact.

Modern audiences have been primed for VR by two mainstream media: Hollywood Special FX blockbusters, and AAA videogames for consoles. Think the special effects from Avatar, or the Lord of the Rings, and Ex Machina; totally synthetic, computer-generated characters that are also totally believable… in fact, indistinguishable from human actors, apart from their extreme biological forms.

L to R Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).

On the videogame front, we have massive 40+ hour experiences with near-photorealistic graphics, massive sets & environments; think Gears of War, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.

These high expectations are compounded by the fact that the essence of the VR experience encourages close inspection of elements. In other words, people just love to lean in and closely examine textures and objects. This means that most of the graphical and modeling shortcuts used by artists to render far away objects are now nullified. VR artists must generally model for close-up inspections.

First, lets look at some basic economics of content creation: 

MOVIES

  • a movie ticket costs $10, for 2 hours of entertainment
  • a major hollywood movie costs about $200 million to make and market
  • there are more than 1 billion people who watch movies worldwide
  • a DVD player, Roku, or AppleTV costs consumers about $30.

VIDEOGAMES

  • a videogame costs $50, for 40 hours of play
  • a major AAA videogame costs about $30 million to make and market
  • there are more than 300 million active videogame consoles worldwide
  • a videogame console costs consumers about $300.

Now, for comparison, lets look at

VR in 2015

  • A premium VR experience retails for $3 to $12, for 5-20 minutes of play
  • A premium 5-minute VR experience takes about $1 million to create
  • There are currently less than 2 million VR viewers in the hands of consumers globally.
  • an entry level consumer VR rig costs consumers about $1,500.

Realistically, most of the VR content being created today is by either small motivated teams of 1-3 people, or by divisions of larger VFX firms who are dipping their toes into the new media since most of the hollywood FX work is now shipped to Asia and India. The videogame companies will be coming on strong soon. Hello EA, Blizzard, Epic.

To cut to the chase: consumers expect photorealism, yet there is no way to justify photo-realistic production budgets when the existing audience is effectively non-existent. (EDIT : We know: the HMDs are coming, the HMDs are coming. For now, its cart before the horse…)

The interim solution : short-form, low-poly

One possible solution, as with most, relies on elegance, not brute force. Extremely low poly models, which perform well on almost any platform, including GearVR and cardboard variants, and short-form content, i.e. playtimes of less than 5 minutes, are the sweet spot that make modern VR production possible… perhaps even profitable.

As the audience grows above 10 million, as the headsets get more lightweight and comfortable for longer-term wearability, as AR comes online… certainly we can start to up the poly count. But for those who wish to design, develop, publish and possibly profit today, short-form, low-poly is the go-to-market strategy.

Examples of doing low-poly right:

1. Darknet

2. See our earlier post on Synthesis Universe.

and…

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