Broadcaster Sky jumps into virtual reality, launches new content studio and readies VR app

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European pay-TV broadcaster Sky — a long-time investor in virtual reality startup Jaunt — has positioned itself as a more direct content player in the VR world. Today the company — which has 21 million subscribers and is majority owned by 21st Century Fox — launched Sky VR Studio, a production unit dedicated to creating immersive video content specifically for VR devices and platforms, starting first with sports content and then tackling entertainment and news, too.

Initially, Sky will upload material to third-party platforms like Facebook 360, Oculus and (soon, the company tells me) YouTube 360, which will make it viewable using headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR and the Oculus Rift. Eventually, Sky wants to develop its own app and is thinking about how to have its own wider platform to host and stream immersive VR video itself.

“The Sky VR Studio allows us to add a new dimension to storytelling, taking viewers to extraordinary places and offering a unique perspective on a whole host of events. The development of VR technology is moving at an incredible pace and excitement is building about its potential,” said Gary Davey, managing director of content at Sky, in a statement. “Our expertise across a wide range of video content, from original drama to live sport, gives us a unique ability to bring VR to life for customers. This is just the start and we’re looking forward to creating more amazing VR content and exploring the possibilities with our tech and content partners.”

The VR launch makes sense because it finally gives some transparency to why Sky has been investing in Jaunt.

The broadcaster has been involved in every round raised by the VR hardware and software company since its seed round in 2013, and it turns out that the pair have been working together closely for the past three years. Sky uses Jaunt cameras, and the startup has been a regular consultant to Sky on how it has developed VR video.

Sky’s not the only strategic VR/AR investor whose financial interest is now coming good on the product front. Earlier today, Alibaba — a major investor in the still-stealth augmented reality and VR startup Magic Leap — today announced its own VR R&D lab, the GnomeMagicLab, which sounds more than a little like a play on Magic Leap and the cute animations it’s been releasing to tease its own products.

Sky jumping into virtual reality is also logical when you consider how the company has developed its content historically.

In the UK and other markets where it operates (Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy), Sky pioneered the idea of paying large fees for rights for specific content like sports, nabbing exclusives to broadcast Premier League matches and using that to build its subscriber base.

Slicing and dicing that pricey content into different kinds of video packages is one way of getting more mileage out of those assets, extending the time that a viewer spends with Sky, and giving those views more of a reason to pay for its service.

“Given the access and rights that Sky has we can give a unique perspective,” a Sky spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Sky is not the only broadcaster to dip its toes into VR waters. Others include Fox Sports, which recently announced that it will work with NextVR to produce VR content for the NCAA Big East basketball tournament.

But it may be the first that thinks it can port the VR experience to a wider array of interests — thereby potentially taking VR out of the niche that it seems to be digging fast for itself around action sports and gaming.

Still, the first productions from Sky VR Studio will be low-hanging fruit. They will focus on sports — specifically two car-racing videos made with Formula One and Williams Martini Racing, as well as Tour de France and boxing videos. From there, the company says it will expand to entertainment, news and more.

News is an area where the company has already produced some 360-style content, specifically in a documentary profiling the migrants that are coming through Europe at the moment.

It’s also still trying to find its feet in the space. “We’re exploring what works for VR and what doesn’t,” the spokesperson said. “It’s all about trying to give viewers access to something we haven’t seen before.”

For now, all the content that Sky will be making in VR will be free, although if you look at the rest of Sky’s business model around video, offering free now could be laying the groundwork for charging in the future: The company’s TV services are based around a paid subscription, and Sky Go, its online and mobile service, comes as a freebie for existing TV subscribers, or you pay if you are not.