How Will TV Makers Compete With VR?

At some point, VR will be a really big thing. Isn’t it big now, you ask? Not really. Sure, everyone in technology is talking about VR. But in terms of objective numbers such as hardware sales, content downloads and household penetration rates, VR isn’t anything more than anticipatory buzz at the moment.

But, VR will be a really big thing…if it can overcome the Wun Wun pounding on its fortress gate problem: VR’s necessary helmet-like goggles. 3D TV failed because people didn’t want to wear sunglasses indoors, but we think folks will want to essentially want to wear a lunchbox strapped to their faces for VR? And let’s not even discuss that VR goggle wearers look like idiots, with their heads snapping around in all directions and their arms flailing around waving at nothing.

Admittedly, VR is as different an experience from flat 2D TV viewing or 3D as riding a bicycle is as different an experience than sky diving, and so the mainstream public might put up with the helmet goggles and the indignity. But VR has a ways to go technologically; smartphone screen technology needs to be finer, recording resolution needs to be higher, processing power needs to be boosted and—did we mention the ridiculous helmet goggles? If tech history—or the movie Brainstorm—is any guide, however, rest assured these drawbacks, being merely technological, will be solved. Remember what constituted “big screen” TV 25 years ago, and how anti-deluvian those big cube boxes look today?

In other words, less Darth Vader and more Geordi La Forge is likely on the horizon for VR headware. But for VR to go mainstream, there may need to be a non-helmet, group-sharing counterpart—wider TVs with paradigm-snapping viewing capabilties.

Replicating VR on a TV?

If and when VR becomes truly mainstream, the mainstream TV business is going to have to adapt to a less virtual competitive reality just as it adapted to external technology threats from other entertainment quarters, usually the movies. UHD is nice, but once people get used to 360-degree video, 16:9 is gonna look like black & white TV by comparison.

Which makes me wonder about what happened to UWS—ultra wide screen 21:9 TVs? Maybe 21:9 isn’t as all-enveloping VR, but a UWS TV is at least wide enough to avoid looking like a flat anachronism in the coming 360-degree age.

I’m speculatively spitballing here, but I’m gonna guess that at some point a TV maker will develop technology that will allow consumers to scan around a VR image on a 4K or even 8K display. Or, create curved 21:9 sets that can be joined together to create a more enveloping 42:9 semi-VR experience. I saw just such enveloping horseshoe-shaped OLED possibilities from LG at the last CES.

Each year for the last few years, Samsung and LG have displayed 105-inch 21:9 sets at either CES or IFA or both; Samsung’s still selling its $120,000 curved UN105S9B UHD, and LG its similar $100,000 curved UWS 105UC9 set. Up until a few years ago, Vizio, Philips and Vestel all sold more reasonably-priced and reasonably-sized cinema-style 21:9 HDTVs and UHDs. This doesn’t include the myriad 34-inch 21:9 PC monitors from Samsung, LG, Dell, Acer, AOC, HP and others.

Even without the potential threat of VR antiquating 16:9 TVs, 21:9 UWS is far more “natural” considering human’s estimated 114-degree binocular field of vision, and provides actual functional, multi-tasking advantages.

For one thing, 21:9 preserves the “natural” shape of today’s movies. (For some reason, the film business and the TV business express aspect ratios differently, so bear with me.)

Most of today’s blockbusters are shot in a widescreen 2.35:1 format. And, of course, widescreen epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (2.20:1), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2.20:1) and Ben-Hur (2.76:1), were shot in ultra wide screen film formats.

All well and good, except a standard 16:9 HDTV translates to, at best, a 1.78:1 film equivalent aspect ratio. So while widescreen classics are shown in their full horizontal (but letterboxed) glory on TCM, most movies shown on HBO, Showtime, Starz!, et al, are cropped—slivers are sliced off the left and right sides of the image to be displayed full screen on a 16:9 set. Cropping and/or letterboxing these widescreen films would be unnecessary on a 21:9 UWS UHD.

For normal 16:9 TV programming—sitcoms, police procedurals, talk shows, the news, live sports, et al—TV networks could broadcast a vertical column of supporting data, text commentary or a social media stream on the left or right a 21:9 screen, or give users the option to watch two 4:3 sporting events side-by-side.

A couple of months ago, I speculated that 8K TVs could be only a few years away. This might be a perfect time to bring back improved 21:9 sets with 42:9 dual-panel plus VR panning and scanning capabilities to complement the coming VR age as well.