Paramount augmented reality app a low point for Viacom’s vision of VR

As part of its bid to engage younger, smartphone-addicted viewers, Viacom has pushed ahead into new video formats and technologies under its Viacom NEXT studio.

The studio is “working on the future of entertainment,” the company declares on its website, which isn’t quite fully built yet. “With a focus on virtual reality, we are making room-scale interactive music experiences, narrative worlds, games, and exploring live-action capture techniques.”

Viacom is desperate to wedge its feet into any open doors at the moment that could lead to more engagement with its target audience: young viewers who don’t watch TV. The studio debuted earlier this year with the launch of a mind-bending music video. It has since released a handful of other VR experiences that amount to little more than novelty one-offs.

Which begs the question, with VR and AR, what, exactly, is the end game?
For some film studios, VR and AR experiences are seen as novelty promotions, meant to drum up interest in purchasing DVDs and Blu-rays. The experiences themselves tend to gamify the content, tapping into twin trends of interactivity and the rise of gaming.

Paramount, Viacom’s film division, is now leveraging the Viacom NEXT studio to promote the latest installation of its popular Transformers franchise with a new augmented reality app for smartphones, which coincides with the DVD release of the Transformers: The Last Knight release.

The app was developed by Viacom and Apple’s ARKit technology. The iOS app works something like Nintendo’s famed Pokemon Go app: it overlays 3D graphics onto the user’s surrounding environment and enables users to step inside a virtual representation of one of the film’s settings: a junkyard. Users are able to control a virtual Bumblebee – that’s the name of the yellow transformer robot – as he interacts with, hits, and even blows up various objects within the junkyard.

But if 2016 was the year of VR hype, 2017 has been the year of VR slow fade. Nintendo’s Pokemon Go remains as the pinnacle of an AR win, but looking at the wider market today, it may also be the sector’s high water mark.

Brands, particularly in retail, are still testing out the video technologies that underpin AR and VR experiences, and are looking for ways to leverage the technology for their own means. For entertainment purposes, however, the case for VR is much less clear.

In December, Paramount is releasing what it’s claiming is an industry first for VR: a virtual movie theater, in which users can don their high-end head-mounted displays and be plopped into a virtual theater, where they’ll be treated to a 3D version of Top Gun. If successful, we may see more studios diving into virtual theater releases as a way to potentially monetize library content in a next generation home viewing platform. Or maybe not. Studio-backed VR and AR projects are more novelty than utilitarian, and once that novelty wears off – one could argue it has already washed away – consumers may not be very interested in whatever they have to offer in the next few years.

Still, Viacom’s VR studio play may be more strategic than is immediately obvious. The majority of Viacom NEXT projects are essentially visually stunning, and at times interactive, music videos. Viacom, which owns the MTV and VHI networks, is well aware of how music-obsessed its target audience is. With online video platforms like YouTube and Vevo supporting VR videos, VR and AR music videos may represent a new type of music content that could potentially resonate with viewers.

Chaki Ng, senior vice president, Viacom NEXT, has described these videos as opening the door to a new medium of music and performance. Many of those projects feature Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture technology to create photorealistic holograms of musicians that can be projected into real world and CGI-built environments.

“It’s a first look at the future of music-based VR content,” Ng said.
At South by Southwest this year, Viacom debuted what is likely the world’s first virtual album, a music experience housed in a virtual castle. Users can interact with objects and rooms in the castle to be treated to different melodies and visuals which all together create something akin to Beyonce’s visual album, but more interactive.

The success of Viacom’s VR ambitions will rest on its studio’s ability to transform novel VR experiences into utilitarian music experiences. While music is certainly a social medium, VR videos are decidedly solo experiences.