#225: Immersing Yourself in Your Favorite Show in VR with Hulu

designovichAlex Tenyotkin is a senior design lead at Hulu, and he talks about how virtual reality went from being a passion project to being announced as part of the keynote at Oculus Connect 2. Alex talks about some of the design challenges for designing a VR cinema application, and some of the research findings from Oculus around it. He also discusses some of the unique experiences that Hulu is providing by creating custom-branded VR environments that put you within your favorite show with one of the most popular experiences of being able to watch Seinfeld from the living room of Seinfeld recreated within VR. Alex said that the expected release date for the Hulu VR app is targeted for November.


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.924] Alex Tenyotkin: I'm Alex, I'm a design lead with Hulu, working specifically on VR at the moment. So we've been focusing on VR probably wholeheartedly for the last six months or so. We've been talking about VR for quite a while, but it just hasn't materialized until about six months ago when we put together an internal demo, a functional one at that, to demonstrate around the company, let people know what it's all about, the potential of it. Because it's very difficult, you know, unless you're at these kind of conferences, to really see the momentum gaining. So we had to kind of shop it around the company a little bit, but everybody sees it, you know, they see the opportunities now ahead. Especially for Hulu, you know, it's interesting to kind of place people in an environment that more closely speaks to the content, which is what we're all about. You know another thing for Hulu that's been kind of important all along is being device agnostic as much as possible and being across all the devices people actually want to be on. So this was kind of a natural fit on the roadmap. We just wanted to be at launch rather than being after launch and so we wanted to challenge ourselves to think on behalf of the customer to think ahead a little bit and maybe make some mistakes in the beginning with the rest of the VR pioneers, so to speak, as Oculus mentioned today. But we feel like it's an important step. We've been thinking a lot about the specific challenges, not just in VR development, but specific challenges to Hulu, some of those being like long form consumption. You know, I mean, Netflix just announced their app. That's wonderful that we have somebody else appear in the industry basically doing the same thing. you know, in terms of letting people consume long form content. So they'll be figuring out the same kind of challenges that we are. But we're definitely committed to making sure that people get a good experience here. We want to make sure that people don't feel like it's nauseating, trying to identify what those trigger points are for nausea and for discomfort and for claustrophobia. And does it feel like it's too much of a vacuum and there's silence or, you know, does it feel like the environment is dead? And, you know, we're trying to figure out those things. But yeah, that's kind of where we're starting out with.

[00:02:26.348] Kent Bye: And you mentioned the challenges around long form content. What's your personal experience of watching either a half hour TV show or a full movie within a VR headset and what are some of those challenges that you're finding?

[00:02:39.071] Alex Tenyotkin: Yeah, that's a great question. So I did sit in VR for an hour and a half watching, at the time it was Oculus Cinema, so it was a pretty good experience to start out with, kind of model what we want to do maybe after that a little bit. At this point there is no reason to kind of reinvent the direction, so to speak. You know, obviously we will have VR content, but we're also having 2D content. All of our Hulu library available to our subscribers will be available within the environment to watch. So yeah, but I went ahead and did that, and then as soon as we had a tech demo, functioning tech demo, I watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine for about an hour, hour and a half. And it wasn't actually that bad. It was, you know, Samsung Gear VR. It's fairly comfortable. It's fairly light. And, you know, at the time, I also had, like, I was sitting for a few cats, and they were running around me playing. And, you know, I was really immersed in what I was doing, but all I felt on the couch was, like, cats jumping around. And that was a little interesting, but it wasn't totally distracting either. It felt normal to have these two universes sort of coexist in parallel. You know, there's a few things that we kind of look at the Oculus Cinema experience, for instance, or our experience at the moment, and, you know, see some deficiencies, see some opportunities to kind of innovate on. For instance, those things I mentioned about No people in the scene. It makes it really awkward. It's almost eerie. It's not something that we're used to seeing on a regular basis. It's almost like walking out your house and seeing nobody on the street. It's just not normal, you know. So we're trying to fill that gap somehow. We're seeing if it's, you know, maybe it's a social thing. Maybe it's not a social thing. Maybe there's NPCs in there. Maybe there are opportunities to chat with and things of that nature.

[00:04:18.640] Kent Bye: And so what were some of the challenges that you faced in terms of designing this streaming media application within VR for Hulu?

[00:04:26.123] Alex Tenyotkin: Well, I mean, design challenges. There's a few design challenges, a few tech challenges. I could speak a lot to the design challenges. You know, one of the challenges straight out of the gate was just how do you even design within a 3D space? You know, coming off a background where, you know, our company and most in our industry, UX and product design industry, or discipline rather, we work with 2D medium, 2D screens. flat screen, so it's easy to wireframe and it's easy to kind of comp out designs. But it's very difficult to convey how it looks in 3D. At the end of the day, it was actually a very, like, mental barrier. It wasn't actually a challenge. It's just something new that we had to deal with. So at the moment, we simplified our process to designing in a square rather than a 16 by 9, just because every eye gets a square. We don't really need to accommodate for stereoscopic vision in conceptual form. So that's been fairly fun. And then on the framework side, we articulate some of the layers that happen, you know, like the screen is that far away, you know, your UI is this far away, your secondary UI, et cetera. So that was interesting. It was an interesting process. Research is an interesting challenge for us. For one, we have no demographic information, not really. You know, we kind of have to look to the gaming industry to look up demographics and kind of extrapolate from that what we might be expecting. although that's not a true representation of what people will actually be interacting with. And then we have no data. We have no usability data, no prior experiences to kind of get input on and say, okay, this is definitely the wrong way to do it, or this is definitely the right thing to do. And then we could fine tune from there, or refine from there, but we just didn't have that. Now we're starting to get that as we're developing our own experience and we're starting to test it inside our walls anyway. We have a fairly robust lab. And so we make good use of that and bring people in. There's some very loose tests that we do, just because it's very difficult to, right now, gauge exactly what people do and what people are reacting to. But even in these early stages, I think this data is very, very important.

[00:06:33.052] Kent Bye: What are some of the specifications that you had to meet in terms of translating from what you might do in a 2D and what did you have to do differently to do it in the Gear VR and in VR?

[00:06:43.556] Alex Tenyotkin: Yeah, that's a good question. I'm not as close to the tech side of things. I've certainly been involved. I could speak to the fact that we're really big on streaming and we wanted to make sure that streaming works for us. That's what Hulu is all about. And so we didn't want to have like this bundle app that has everything and it's clunky and it has to be updated all the time. If we even update a VR space, for instance, an environment in which you're watching, we kind of want to have the ability to stream that in. So that was kind of nice. In terms of streaming resolution, I don't know what the bit rates are, but we are aiming for HD quality. It's just a matter of what the pixel on the screens could actually translate at this point. But what I've seen so far coming in from our Hulu service, what you would usually get on your laptop or TV or on your mobile phone, It's the same exact high-fidelity HD picture. So it looks really, really good. The one thing that we are doing also in terms of VR content, specifically VR content, we've done a lot of tests in terms of streaming it. And we're fairly confident that we've kind of cracked that nut, so to speak. So we're really happy with those results. And you'll see some of the demos for VR coming out as soon as the app launches. When is it launching? It's launching sometime in November.

[00:07:54.868] Kent Bye: It sounds like this app was kind of like a passion project or a side project that got started and then you had to build some internal support for it. Talk about how it went from the beginning into getting announced here at Oculus Connect.

[00:08:09.117] Alex Tenyotkin: Sure. It is a little bit of a passion project, I suppose. I think the interest for VR we're building amongst our leadership for quite a while, especially on our content side, on our distribution side, you know, like distribution partnerships. and as well as on the technical side. That's kind of where it originated from, you know. One of our technical teams took on the challenge of building out an actual prototype for a hackathon that we had. We have a hackathon once a year, we're actually moving up to maybe twice a year now. just because they're a good way for us to innovate outside of our regular roadmaps and outside of things that we can't quite, you know, predict or anticipate. And so we have a lot of innovative ideas coming out of those hackathons, and one last year was VR. And when we all saw it, I'll kind of shortly explain the demo, but you were sitting on a Viking ship, and then around you there's these tentacles, like a kraken, like surrounding the ship, and then on the mast set, There's the screen that you're watching and so we kind of thought maybe we could theme this theater You know to a show and at this time one of our favorite shows was Vikings. So that's what we did You know once you kind of try it on once the leadership tried that demo out and the rest of us tried it out It became obvious, you know that we have to move on this and we have to move on it fast and And it was fairly easy for us to kind of reach out to all of the VR partners, content-wise and hardware-wise and distribution-wise, because they're all excited about it as well. And from there, we began to figure out what we're actually going to do and try to focus in on something that we're going to launch with.

[00:09:45.130] Kent Bye: Great. And what kind of scenes do you have then? Because in Oculus Cinema, as you said, you're kind of sitting in an empty theater, which can be a little awkward. But for you, are you going for a theater, a home theater? What type of actual environments do you have?

[00:09:58.530] Alex Tenyotkin: Sure. For now, we didn't get too ambitious with it. We didn't want to spend all of our time on that. We wanted to make sure that we get the comfort levels down. We wanted to make sure that we get the general concept across to our customers. We wanted to welcome them in without getting too crazy with the environments. We know in talking with the Oculus folks that, for instance, the fantasy environment, the Ant Theater in Oculus Cinema has been very, very popular. And that's amazing, you know, but I think we'll focus on that stage of our app evolution once we iron out all the kinks in terms of usability, in terms of navigation. which is also very challenging. Navigating 42,000 shows and 3,000 movies is very, very challenging in VR, and so that's been primarily our focus, is kind of getting past those barriers first. Our sort of theme of environments coming out of the door at launch would be what we're calling a modern theme, and so there's a set of environments that all have a similar theme amongst them, just so it feels like they're part of the same universe and it all kind of belongs and makes sense. We will have a cinema. I don't think that's so much a surprise. We'll have a modern living room to watch in, as well as a series of environments that are designed specifically for shows. So we have a Seinfeld environment, for instance, for a Seinfeld show that we just acquired. That was a big hit. It's one of our most popular shows on Hulu. Because we built out an actual replica of the environment of that stage in New York as part of the launch for the Seinfeld announcement, we took a 3D scan of that and we took a lot of photos and referenced it, as well as referenced shots from the actual show and reconstructed it. And it's really amazing to just sit there and watch Seinfeld. If you're a huge fan, of course, like if you're not, maybe it's not for you, it's cute for you, but if you are a huge fan, then it really is special because you could look behind you and see that box of cereal or whatever, you know, or you could look and see where George sat, you know, or you kind of expect Kramer to just jump out the door any minute. Maybe that will happen, maybe not. Probably not at the beginning, but we'll see. But we are trying to infuse life into it. We're trying to infuse motion. Some of these environments will have things that are moving around. For instance, in the living room, I think we have some plants that are gently moving to kind of give you that feel like, oh, there's an AC, some noise in the background. So those things kind of add to the general feel that you're actually there. And then later on, as we look forward towards next year and the bulk of the releases of the head-mounted units, I think we'll get a little bit fancier with our spaces. We'll probably start theming them a little bit more like maybe sci-fi, maybe fantasy, maybe something a little bit, maybe Hulu. Maybe you'll be able to watch from our Hulu studio. You know, we have a very nice office and it'd be nice maybe for people that are really big fans of Hulu to watch it from Hulu, where our employees watch from. And then there's a host of other things that we're doing. We're doing a void as well, just to accommodate for people that want to lie back. Again, talking with Oculus, it was very clear that some people do want to lean back from their research, and it's nice to kind of orient the screen to the center of your tracking position. And we're also aiming to bring in some fun environments for teens, kids maybe, that are a little bit, they're pretty agnostic in terms of, you know, they're not hardcore kids, like it's not a playground, you know, but it's something a little bit more engaging, maybe it'll be a beach, that's what we're aiming for right now.

[00:13:27.653] Kent Bye: Great, and finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:13:35.198] Alex Tenyotkin: Oh, that's a crazy question. You know, I don't know. I think right now it's very difficult to tell exactly where it will end up in five years. But, you know, looking around the corner and from today's keynote from Oculus, you know, it seems like there is a potential that we'll be, you know, in these spaces interacting with one another. you know, there will be sort of an augmented space to which all people can go. Maybe it's a shopping destination, maybe it's a virtual mall and you can meet your friends there from across the world and you're all shopping together or maybe it's a workspace and you're all collaborating on one thing. I don't believe we have to wait for augmented reality to accomplish some of the augmented reality sort of tasks. I think we could leverage VR for that. The challenges being, of course, right now that with augmented reality, it's a little bit easier in terms of projecting something additional onto your world, because the world you're in is already fully realized. With VR, we're still starting out, and the real-time rendering of a lot of the things that we want to do is still very, very difficult, especially on mobile devices that are just not quite there yet. Awesome. Well, thank you. Sure. Thank you.

[00:14:42.642] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening!

[00:14:43.844] Alex Tenyotkin: If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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