Facebook (FB -0.84%) recently unveiled 360-degree News Feed videos which "spin" with the user to display an entire scene in virtual reality. The feature will initially work with Facebook on the web and Android, while iOS support will be added within a few months. Users can physically move through a scene with gyroscope-equipped devices, or swipe through videos on devices that lack motion sensors.
Facebook worked with Oculus, the VR headset maker it acquired last year, to develop the feature. Several publishers, including Star Wars, Discovery, Saturday Night Live, LeBron James & Uninterrupted, VICE, and GoPro (GPRO -2.78%), have already started posting 360-degree videos.
Facebook isn't the only company interested in VR videos. Earlier this year, GoPro bought Kolor, which creates software for stitching together 360-degree photos or videos. That content can be viewed in Kolor's app, as an interactive video on Google's (GOOG -3.25%) (GOOGL -3.61%) YouTube, or in a virtual reality headset. Google then introduced Jump, a VR "ecosystem" which captures content with the 16-camera Odyssey rig it built with GoPro, stitches it together with backend software, and shares it as an interactive video on YouTube.
Back then, Google and GoPro's plan looked like a moonshot. But with Facebook's introduction of 360-degree News Feed videos, VR content could gain more mainstream recognition and cast a halo effect on Google and GoPro.
Facebook's virtual reality ambitions
When Facebook bought Oculus last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined his VR strategy in a Facebook post. He wanted to introduce the Oculus Rift headset for "immersive gaming" first, and then expand it as "a platform for many other experiences" like telehealth, remote teaching, or attending live events. "Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online," Zuckerberg declared, "but entire experiences and adventures."
But for that to happen, the concept of VR must gain mainstream acceptance. Google already got the ball rolling last year with Cardboard, a cheap DIY kit which lets people convert their smartphones into VR headsets. The main Cardboard app has already been downloaded up to 5 million times from Google Play, which has encouraged more developers to create VR apps.
But whereas Cardboard reached a few million people, Facebook can reach 1.49 billion monthly active users. Since 1.31 billion of those users access the site from mobile devices, advertisers will be eager to launch eye-catching 360-degree videos for the News Feed. That rising demand could create a new class of video ads which might cost more than regular video ads. Viewing interactive videos can also keep users within Facebook's ecosystem for longer periods of time, which would increase the amount of ads displayed and data mined per user.
How does this help GoPro?
Rising public interest in VR content will likely encourage more companies to produce their own interactive videos for Facebook, YouTube, or VR headsets. That would boost demand for professional VR cameras like the the Odyssey, which costs $15,000 and sports 16 HERO4 Black cameras. GoPro also plans to launch a smaller and cheaper "Spherical" VR rig, which will only be equipped with six cameras, later this year.
Some of GoPro's critics claim that the company's growth could stall when customers stop upgrading their action cams. VR rigs could temporarily solve that problem, since customers would need to buy multiple GoPros to produce VR content. It's likely that GoPro will also launch cheaper and smaller all-in-one VR cameras, which would represent a tempting upgrade from its flagship cameras.
GoPro already has an established media presence, with millions of subscribers and fans across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, and its videos basically serve as free advertisements for its products. The addition of 360-degree interactive videos could encourage more people to create VR content, and more viewers to buy GoPro cameras and rigs.
Another first-mover's advantage
JPMorgan analyst Paul Coster expects Facebook's introduction of 360-degree videos to boost GoPro's hardware sales by expanding its media presence and raising brand awareness. He also believes that GoPro has gained a first-mover advantage in producing high-quality 360-degree content at a low cost versus comparable devices like Ozo.
The VR market might seem like a niche one today, but research firm Digi-Capital expects it to grow from nearly nothing today to $30 billion by 2020. With the right software, hardware, and apps, companies like Facebook, Google, and GoPro could be well poised to profit from that growth.