Netflix isn’t big on virtual reality for the obvious reasons

Virtual realty has too few users, and isn’t conducive to binge-watching.

While some streaming services such as Hulu and YouTube are making bets on virtual reality video, Netflix is hanging back.

Netflix executives told VentureBeat that there are two main reasons the company isn’t investing in VR content right now. The first, according to Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, is that it’s not big enough.

Netflix is currently available in 190 countries, with 80 million users, all watching essentially the same type of video. It’s unclear how many people are enjoying VR, but even Google’s cheap Cardboard headsets have shipped only 5 million units, many of which were given away. It’s a comparatively small and entirely separate audience.

The bigger obstacle, however, is the VR experience itself, which at least for 360-degree video involves a more active role of looking around every scene. “You’re exhausted after 20 minutes,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said. “We are more focused on a lean-back, relaxing experience.”

That’s not to say Netflix is avoiding VR entirely. Samsung’s Gear VR headset offers an official Netflix app, though it’s merely a virtual living room with a big-screen TV. You can’t change the environment—for instance, to a movie theater—or share the virtual space with friends. Clearly there’s room to expand the concept of 2D video in virtual reality.

During the CES trade show in January, Hastings said the company was experimenting with VR, but had no concrete plans. “It’s a very early phase, so we’re gonna learn some things with no commitment other than to have the Netflix TV shows and movies be available within the headsets,” Hastings said, according to VentureBeat.

Why this matters: The comments from Netflix come as other video services take a more aggressive approach to virtual reality. Hulu’s Gear VR app, for instance, includes a bunch of exclusive 360-degree video, and YouTube is reportedly considering live 360-degree video to complement its on-demand selection. Amazon is staffing up to build VR content as well. Still, Netflix has a point: No one’s figured out how to make VR-specific video that gels with the kind of binge-watching that Netflix encourages.

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Jared Newman

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