What's the next best thing to being there?
Some of the world's largest media companies are betting that it's virtual reality, where consumers strap on goggles to watch TV shows, video games and maybe even movies down the road in a 360-degree panorama that puts them right in the action.
Fans of the America's Cup sailing competition leapt into a boat sponsored by Land Rover, thanks to virtual reality, heeling to one side of the tilted boat as its crew battled the heaving spray of the Caribbean Sea. In one scene viewers were thrown overboard.
The film was produced by Palo Alto start-up Jaunt, which has the backing of Walt Disney, Alphabet's GV start-up and other major media and technology companies as it makes its bid to dominate the virtual reality world, which many experts predict could be entertainment's next big play.
Backed with nearly $101 million in venture capital, Jaunt has built a library of nearly 300 pieces of mostly short-form VR content that includes a 360-degree view of a concert by former Beatle Paul McCartney, a panoramic of "The Lion King" on Broadway and a bullet-splattered "Escape of the Living Dead" video segment.
Watching the world through goggles may not be everyone's cup of tea, but analysts at Goldman Sachs recently projected an $80 billion industry by 2025, with $45 billion spent on goggles and other equipment and $35 billion more for the content to play video games or watch sports and entertainment in VR.
"It ultimately will change entertainment," says digital media consultant Bernard Gershon, a former Disney strategic planning executive. "VR will be an immersive experience impacting all the senses – sight, sound, motion, touch, smell."
Gershon figures the cost and size of headsets need to come down before there's widespread adoption of the technology.
Jaunt's game plan is to feed content to the growing numbers of users of mobile devices that can be outfitted with headsets such as Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard, says George Kliavkoff, the former NBC Universal and Hearst executive who joined Jaunt in September as its president and chief executive.
"It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation," says Kliavkoff, who helped launch the Hulu video streaming service. "We intend to offer an immersive technology and the content that will help drive consumer adoption."
Jaunt co-produced "Invisible," a six-part supernatural drama series created by "The Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman's 30 Ninjas company that premiered on Samsung's VR service before being shown on Jaunt's VR app, YouTube, Facebook and co-producer Conde Nast's "The Scene" digital video platform. "Invisible" tells the story of a powerful New York family with the supernatural ability to make themselves invisible.
In January, Jaunt announced a slate of five new series to be produced at its 10,000-square-foot Santa Monica, California, studio, including a six-part stoner comedy series "Bad Trip" and a series based on the 1992 cult horror movie "The Lawnmower Man." Klaivkoff won't say when the shows will be making their debut.
The company is also building out the distribution network for VR content with commercial-like programming, like the Land Rover video, that it makes for companies that want to use virtual reality video to promote their products. Jaunt has made videos for more than 50 "brands," the company says, including those for Budweiser, Google and Mattel.
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The company made a four-minute VR short starring Danny DeVito and other cast members of the FX sitcom "Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which took viewers along a ride on a smoke-filled motorcycle stunt — or allowed them to swivel in another direction to watch a scantily clad young woman who stopped just short of a doing a striptease. The VR segment played on FX's site as well as Jaunt's VR app and Facebook.
Sky TV used Jaunt's equipment for some of the programming when it introduced its SKY VR app. Among the shows were "Sky Sports: Closer," hosted by soccer legend David Beckham, and a performance of the English National Ballet's production of "Giselle." The satellite service also gave away thousands of Google cardboard headsets.
Kliavkoff says Disney, which in September 2015 led Jaunt's $65 million Series C round, will soon offer its fans a 360-degree online trip to Pandora, the mythical planet in James Cameron's film "Avatar," which is also the backdrop for the media giant's new "Pandora—The World of Avatar" attraction at its Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.
"We constantly strive to create standout experiences for our customers through our partnerships," said Mark Cameron, Jaguar Land Rover's brand experience director of global marketing, in a statement about the America's Cup video. "By using Jaunt's cutting-edge VR technology, we were able to give unprecedented access to the team and America's Cup sailing in a thrilling firsthand experience."
The big prize, of course, will come if virtual reality takes hold with consumers who want to immerse themselves in the action on the big screen. That's coming slowly. IMAX, which operates a chain of giant-screen movie theaters, is rolling out a dozen IMAX VR centers in major markets, including Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo, for goggle-wearing consumers to watch shorter-form VR content for about $1 a minute.
Jaunt doesn't yet have a deal with IMAX. But it's venturing into China, the world's second-largest market, where its joint venture with China Media Capital and Shanghai Media Group will soon distribute more than 80 pieces of VR content, says Kliavkoff, including some from Jaunt's library.
Virtual reality is already taking hold in China. By 2020 the government's China Electronics Standardization Institute projects companies will be selling 55 billion yuan ($8 billion worth) of goggles, headsets and content in that country alone.
Jaunt also hopes to cash in on one of America's biggest televised events — next year's winter Olympics from PyeongChang, South Korea. The company is already talking with NBC, says Kliavkoff.
"We've got nothing to announce, but we're very interested," he says. "It's just the right kind of event for us."
— By Ronald Grover, special to CNBC.com