AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Virtual reality is big at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual Austin, Texas, tech festival that wraps up Tuesday. It’s a big technological development, a business opportunity — and also just a big experiment, as everyone tries to figure out how to use it.

All around Austin, companies like Samsung, Google, The New York Times and even McDonald’s were showing off their virtual reality efforts. Because it basically immerses viewers in an artificial world, VR can reach an audience in more direct and fundamental ways than other media. Companies and creators are still feeling their way with the new technology.

“Part of what’s so exciting about it is that there are no rules and no best practices, it’s still really unclear what this is for and how best to use it,” said New York Times editor Sam Dolnick. “We’re shaping that at once in real time.”

Facebook’s long-awaited Oculus Rift begins shipping to the public later this month, and new headsets from HTC and Sony are also on their way. (Google even has a VR headset called Cardboard — which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — for $15.) All that is creating a tidal rush of enthusiasm and hype for the new technology.

The opportunity could be big: Deloitte Global predicts that virtual reality will have its first billion dollar year in 2016, with about $700 million in hardware sales and the remainder from games and other VR “experiences.” It estimates headset sales of 2.5 million units this year.

And audiences appear to find VR especially engaging, at least so far. Take, for instance, 360 degree videos, which are typically shot by multicamera setups that capture images in every direction. Viewers can then choose to look at anything in their field of view, as if they were standing where the camera is.

People are 7.5 times more likely to share such videos compared to fixed-frame video, VR journalist Sarah Hill said during a packed SXSW panel discussion on VR storytelling.


At the moment, it’s a challenge to walk around Austin without stumbling across a VR presentation. The New York Times took over the Easy Tiger bar on Austin’s main drag, 6th Street, to host panels and parties that promoted its VR efforts. It provided swivel chairs and headsets for people to watch its virtual reality projects, including “The Displaced,” a 10 minute piece in which viewers follow three child refugees in different nations through their daily lives.

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