Sky content chief Gary Davey: ‘VR is a huge canvas we can innovate on’

3 Oct 20168 Shares

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MD of content at Sky, Gary Davey

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The biggest challenge that Sky’s move into virtual reality (VR) presents is figuring out the best way to tell a narrative story, said TV veteran and MD of content at Sky, Gary Davey.

Davey is one of the most powerful executives in television around the world and he presided over the launch of Sky TV originally in 1989. He is responsible for Sky’s content decisions outside of sport, and is energised by the potential of VR in broadcasting.

Today (3 October), Sky launched a new VR app that builds on the company’s pedigree for being first out of the trap on areas like HD, on-demand and apps in general.

‘Millions of UK and Irish families have given us permission to take money from their bank accounts every month. The commitment to giving them a good experience is ingrained in our thinking’
– GARY DAVEY

The first version of the Sky VR app – downloadable from Google Play or the App Store – works with VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift or Google’s low-cost Cardboard VR viewer.

Sky has created its own facilities for producing in-house content, known as Sky VR Studios.

Sky launches VR app

Anthony Joshua – Becoming World Champion, one of the first showcase pieces of content on the Sky VR app

Sky is showcasing 360 videos and content from partners including Star Wars: Red Carpet, Anthony Joshua – Becoming World Champion and clips from Disney’s The Jungle Book. There is also a Sky Sports VR collaboration involving David Beckham for Sports: Closer as well as an exclusive Sky production of Giselle by the English National Ballet.

In addition to Giselle, Sky will commission a series of high-end VR experiences, under the Sky VR Exclusives label. Produced both in-house by the Sky VR Studios and with third-party partners, the series will build on the commitment to create VR content. This includes Sky News – US Elections and Tutankhamun Tomb – The Search for Nefertiti.

Sky is the limit: a vision for VR

Sky launches VR app

Behind the scenes at a VR shoot with David Beckham

Davey explained that Sky’s survival and future will depend on its ability to stay ahead of new trends.

“When we launched this business in 1989 we were very dependent on football to attract viewers. Then we added movies and entertainment and now we are producing content in eight different genres, with the most recent being VR.

‘I keep reminding our staff that our greatest privilege in content is also our greatest responsibility’
– GARY DAVEY

“It is an exciting time for us because it ticks the boxes this company cares about: content, innovation and service.

“Sometimes it is the content that leads us or it could be the technology but without exception, content, innovation and service end up in the dialogue.

“VR is an unusual scenario, however, because yes, it is a compelling argument and it is incumbent on us to be a leader in content in delivering it in such a way that it has added value, but the hardest part is figuring out what makes the right experience for users.

“Usability is everything here, it is all about the customer experience. I keep reminding our staff that our greatest privilege in content is also our greatest responsibility.

Sky launches VR app

Leicester City – Sky is learning from its launch of VR at football matches

“Millions of UK and Irish families have given us permission to take money from their bank accounts every month. The commitment to giving them a good experience is ingrained in our thinking.”

Davey said that Sky is unusual in that it isn’t just a TV station, it isn’t just a content producer and it isn’t just a tech company. It is all three.

“We have to think about going into areas like HD or VR in a very holistic way. Products and services can miss the mark because maybe there’s an engineer’s fingerprint all over it, or there is too much of an editor’s influence or a producer’s influence. We don’t always get it perfectly right but we try to think about it from an integrated point of view.

“In my office, I have this old wooden stool. On one leg I have content written on it, the next leg has innovation and the third leg has customer service. If anyone of those legs wobbles, the whole thing falls over.

“We have a sophisticated customer interface and we are active online and on social media, but we still also field 35m old-fashioned telephone conversations every year. There is no media company in the world that has that degree of customer contact.”

To VR and beyond

Sky launches VR app

A scene from the British National Ballet production of Giselle which will be shot in VR this Autumn

When it comes to technology, Sky was the foremost leader of HD – some would argue almost too far ahead of the competition. But it has also been a pioneer when it comes to apps,if you consider services like Sky Go and the latest generation Sky Q service.

‘The biggest challenge is how to tell a narrative story in VR’
– GARY DAVEY

If anything, Sky’s interpretation of apps has been quite imaginative, including an F1 app that connects the user directly to a helmet cam in the F1 driver’s helmet.

Reminding Davey of this fires him up. “In November, we plan to put a 360-degree VR camera on a GT bike. When you look closely, the guy’s knee will be close to the ground as well as your face.

“With VR, we are doing an awful lot in sports and news but we were always curious about where this would go in terms of entertainment.

“The biggest challenge is how to tell a narrative story in VR.

“Actually, for a long time I worried about how we could get the entertainment creatives on board. I needn’t have worried, they leapt into VR.”

‘One of the advantages that Sky has is access. We can get into the pit lanes, cover the major events of news, get onto the sets of movies and drama shows’
– GARY DAVEY

Davey points to the co-production between Sky and Amazon US on a new original drama series about the Roman Imperial Army’s invasion of the Celtic heart of Britain.

“We did a significant shoot in 360-degrees on the set of Britannia with over 60 extras in it. It will really give you a sense of what a narrative in 360-degrees might look like,” Davey promised.

“We now have our drama teams on board, devising new ways of using VR. It is limitless and everyone has a high degree of preparedness.

“For example, we are working with the Italian production team on Gomorrah to create mini-stories set in the gritty back streets of Naples. Strap on your VR headset and you will be looking over your shoulder.”

Sky content chief: VR is the new frontier

Sky launches VR app

VR will allow TV to go places it never went before

Davey said that lots of small production companies, as well as the tech giants, are looking at ways VR can make it to the TV world.

“One of the advantages that Sky has is access. We can get into the pit lanes, cover the major events of news, get onto the sets of movies and drama shows. We now have 27 movies that have complementary VR content.”

Where VR could go next is an interesting subject in its own right. Davey said Sky is experimenting with various VR experiences that could give match viewers alternative views. For example, they can be transported to boxing matches, where 360 cameras have been positioned on the corner posts of the ring.

“Imagine watching a Coldplay concert on your traditional TV and your favourite song comes on, snap on your VR headset and find yourself standing next to the lead guitarist on stage. It gets very real.”

But Davey said that even when equipping news teams with a VR kit, there are lots of instances where VR actually doesn’t make sense.

“You have to be careful about context and intrusion, and ultimately think about what you are trying to portray. If you focus on a single point, it doesn’t make sense.

“But we recently shot a beautiful piece in a refugee camp where you really get a sense of what you feel like if you are there. It captures a part of their daily lives and we learned a lot when doing it.

“When you shoot in 360-degree VR you have to be careful in how you look at a story and in news terms you have to be careful not to abuse a situation. There is no point creating a full narrative around it in stories where it doesn’t apply or is not appropriate.”

After launching Sky TV in 1989 in London, Davey went on the full circuit of pay TV platforms for Murdoch’s News Corporation; including paid TV platforms in Asia and Europe such as Sky Italia and Sky Germany.

“I found my way back to London where I belong in content. This is a fascinating time and we are all on a learning curve.”

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com