Discovery Channel

Creating a virtual reality platform


Discovery wanted to establish itself as an early leader as VR was quickly building interest and adoption in the marketplace. Our vision was to build a platform and content offering that appealed to excite our existing television audience and attract new fans.


  • Create amazing experiences that spark curiosity and inspire awe in our audience
  • Position the company as an innovative leader in the booming VR storytelling industry
  • Define new ad revenue opportunities for Discovery


Experience Design Director: Responsible for the whole end-to-end experience.

Project Kickoff

When Facebook announced their acquisition of Oculus, a small group of stakeholders at Discovery began discussing how to best utilize VR for our business. It was clear that 360 video was a perfect fit for us and it was easy to imagine examples like swimming with sharks as appealing for viewers. We partnered up with a subset of that stakeholder group to take a more nimble, startup approach to this new initiative. Our mission was to build a new platform and create content for Discovery's existing audience across its family of television networks and digital brands. The core team consisted of in-house resources with some funding for vendors to build the head mounted display and app experiences.

Competitive Research

We wanted to make informed decisions for the content and experience of the new platform. We researched the existing VR apps and experiences centered around 360 video by investing in several devices including the Samsung VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Google Daydream. We downloaded and explored mobile apps like New York Times VR and RYOT VR. We also looked to streaming video apps like Netflix for inspiration for the organization and design of our product.

Understanding the Audience

With established audiences for Discovery’s television properties, we were able to adopt a subset of those as our target with VR as well. We organized our different content themes and narrowed our focus down to adventure, nature, and curiosity as the topics high interest for our audience. We knew VR would be new to many of our users so we wanted to create a very approachable interface that was familiar and intuitive; while also taking care in explaining less familiar functionality like Google Cardboard on the mobile app.

Opportunity #1

Be an early leader for entertainment brands in VR

With few brands already in the marketplace, Discovery had an opportunity to make an early and lasting impression on their industry and audience.

Opportunity #2

Stream amazing experiences to a growing audience

Leveraging our brand halo, we sought to build a new platform to offer familiar content wrapped in a digital experience that expanded on our existing footprint in web and mobile.

Product Experience

Using our in-house team, we built a digital publishing system to distribute 360 video assets and all the accompanying content. This family of experiences included mobile apps, responsive website and native apps for head-mounted VR displays (Oculus and HTC Vive).

We started with wireframes to help us explore different interaction models and UI patterns. This was followed by some prototyping first in Invision and later in Framer. These informed our final designs for each experience that were intuitive and shared a consistent UI and branding. We also used these assets to communicate basic functionality to our development team so they could start building some of the functionality before the design was finalized.

Mobile Apps

The native mobile apps for iOS and Android featured an immersive experience by either using your phone as a magic window into the 360 video or utilizing Google Cardboard to wear your phone like a headset. The apps were built in React Native to be code efficient across our two app experiences.

Animation and interaction

We wanted to create a rich interface experience through animation and interaction to complement the immersive video experience. The result is clean and quick animations that surprise and delight.

Try App Prototype

Responsive Web

With few existing products on the market, my team explored the emerging UI patterns within the industry and explored new patterns through rapid prototyping. For the web, we felt we had more room for exploration given the more mature and diverse landscape of video experiences. But after launching a teaser site with a more predictable experience, we realized that the website audience was much smaller than our app and native VR experiences. This insight led to a simple grid based layout with a 360 video player so we could redirect our efforts to other parts of the platform.

Native VR Apps

To create the head-mounted VR apps for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, my team managed a development vendor to implement our design of these experiences and ensure we maintained a consistent UI across all our different platforms. After exploring various UX patterns we opted to follow the patterns popularized by other interfaces already in use across VR. The rationale for this decision was rooted in our desire to give the most-frictionless experience rather than introduce new interaction models.

Platform Features

Our launch MVP included the core functionality we needed to create a frictionless experience where our breathtaking 360 video content really shines. Some of the features included:

  • Centralized CMS and API supporting all platforms
  • Responsive website built with React
  • React Native mobile iOS and Android apps
  • Contextual deep linking for each video

  • Full screen video support
  • imgix CDN integration
  • Related content linking
  • Curated commenting

Post-launch we iterated on a number of great features such as:

  • Stereoscopic panoramic video
  • Spatial audio
  • Heatmap tracking analytics

Satisfying the Business

We knew we had to build an advertising model into the platform either at launch or soon after to justify this business expense of establishing the platform. At the same time we knew that advertising was likely to frustrate the audience. The two most practical choices were:

  1. Display video ads as pre-roll or mid-roll during video playback
  2. Secure sponsorship via co-branding of content

We opted for the latter and worked with our counterparts in Adsales to conceptualize and shoot custom content for each sponsor. The platform also featured exclusive video shot during filming of popular Discovery shows such as Shark Week, Mythbusters and Gold Rush.


  • 100 videos published in first year
  • Over 1 Million app downloads
  • Heavy publicity in traditional press and social conversation
  • Awarded Webby, Shorty, and Promax Awards