It’s minutes after tip-off in a late-season hoops matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets.
More than 2,400 miles from the hardwood action featuring Warriors star Steph Curry, in a return to his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., a broadcast studio on Newport Center Drive outfitted with dozens of monitors, a slew of broadcasting equipment and a handful of staffers is transmitting the basketball game’s footage in virtual reality to headset-clad fans across the globe.
“It’s 100% done from here,” NextVR Inc. Chief Executive and co-founder David Cole says from the company’s control room, accessed after several security checkpoints at its roughly 15,000-square-foot-headquarters at the Pacific Financial Plaza office complex.
“We do our own live production. It’s our editors, it’s our producers, it’s our talent.”
The game is one of about two dozen NBA duels that will be broadcast by the 10-year-old Newport Beach firm over the course of the regular season.
The company’s gained plenty of production experience and bills itself as the largest VR content producer in the world, thanks to a bevy of broadcasting deals that span the entertainment world as well as professional sports.
Recent partnerships include those with the National Hockey League, National Hot Rod Association and Central Station Records, the latter of which aims to bring fans unprecedented up-close experiences with hot electronic dance music artists and famous venues.
“We take you live into the clubs,” Cole says. The company’s content comes from “all over the world.”
Soon he hopes the same will be said about virtual reality adoption, which has faced several obstacles including a lack of content, glitchy applications and pricey equipment for optimal experience.
The slower-than-expected adoption was recently felt at company headquarters by its 100 workers.
A round of layoffs at NextVR came earlier this year as the company—which has raised $115 million since its 2009 launch—cited slower-than-anticipated sales of virtual reality headsets the two prior years.
The company’s last reported funding was in 2016, when it raised $80 million in a Series B round led by a syndicate of Asian technology companies.
A partnership for a new generation of VR-related technology announced in February with Qualcomm Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) could help get NextVR’s content in front of more people.
It’s called “XR” viewing, short for extended reality, and promises ultra-high resolution video experience (think 4K) streaming over 5G connectivity—the much-hyped next generation of wireless communication.
The immersive experience will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip that’s being deployed in many models of the next batch of smartphones.
Combined with NextVR software and a thin, ultra-light pair of VR-glasses, the XR platform offers users content from a first-person perspective, with new viewing and playback options.
Newly released 5G-enabled smartphones that include the Snapdragon processor should help fuel the launch of several types of VR products this year, according to NextVR.
“They’re incredibly powerful devices,” Cole says, able to deliver high-end VR and augmented reality content at more than twice the resolution of current standards without draining battery power or hitting the thermal limits of a phone.
“We think 5G and this new form factor display will be a big market mover … a big shot of adrenaline,” for consumer adoption, he says.
Cole expects this to expand the company’s user base; NextVR doesn’t offer specifics on audience size but said its viewers have consumed 10 million minutes of content from over 500 shows.
iPhones on Board
The entire market for VR counts about 12 million active users, according to industry data.
There was a VHS-versus-Betamax incompatibility issue in VR that was only recently resolved, Cole notes.
All-in-one headset devices, like the Oculus Go, which costs $200 and was released just a year ago, finally brought iPhone users into the VR fray as prior headsets only synced with Android phones.
“Fundamentally the entire iOS ecosystem was excluded from mobile VR until the Go shipped,” Cole says.
NextVR content now is available on nearly every VR platform, including Oculus Rift—whose technology was first developed by Palmer Luckey in Irvine—PlayStation VR, HTC Vive Pro, and Google Daydream.
Cole can hold his own against Luckey, in terms of VR-related development. He has co-authored 14 patents in virtual reality and stereoscopic technology—which relates to the enhancement of the illusion of depth in an image—and three patents in adaptive computer learning technology, according to his LinkedIn account.
NextVR’s business model is still largely predicated on pay-per-view and advertising through its app, a content guide of sorts filled with sports, concerts, comedy and other entertainment options.
Its partnership with the NBA advertised that individual games could be accessed for $6.99 each, for those with an NBA League Pass subscription.
The pro b-ball league is one of several company partners. NextVR is in its third year of a multi-year deal with venue operator and ticket seller Live Nation, and the second year of deals with the Association of Tennis Professionals and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.
Its broadcast schedule, which whisks a portion of the company’s production team across the globe weekly, led NextVR to lease space at a warehouse not far from its headquarters that officials call “Area 51.”
Like the highly classified name suggests, its use is clandestine: research and development projects that can’t be unmasked at its glass-house headquarters. It’s outfitted with two production trucks and an armada of production systems shipped all over the world.
“There are things that we do that we can’t do out in the open,” Cole says, referring to the company’s Irvine Co.-owned headquarters.
NextVR broadcasts four to five live shows per week, including at least one comedy show, often from Gotham Comedy Club in New York City, and one concert.
It also airs highlight reels of games, player and driver profiles and fan experiences.
Competing against the likes of YouTube pages with a million views is tough sledding for content providers but Cole believes VR has an advantage: immersing a viewer in an experience for longer periods, often 45 minutes or more.
In an expanded deal with Facebook announced last year, NextVR began syndicating content and helped create Facebook Venues, where it broadcasts live content in a massive user avatar-based social experience.
The VR user can select seats, sit next to friends, interact with them and even take selfies, complete with avatar clothing options, such as team jerseys.
“One of the critiques of VR, and I don’t think it’s an accurate critique, is that watching sports is a social experience and VR is isolating,” Cole says.
“This is the answer to that. It’s incredibly social.”