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The 360 Degree Turning Point of VR

The 360 Degree Turning Point of VR

JM Headshot2014Medby James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society (Excerpted from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter, September 2015)

Virtual Reality, or VR, seems to dominate the Entertainment, Tech, and Financial news these days with announcements of alliances, advancements, and evermore accessible, (read lower cost) gear. Venture Capitalists and Studios are investing heavily in such cutting-edge technology with the promise to create transformative, 360-degree entertainment for film, television, and gaming.

ZuckOculusFacebook, who already gobbled up the small Orange County start up, Oculus for $2 Billion, recently introduced a new 360-degree video feature for the social platform known as 360 Nation. It will allow users to roam within an immersive environment by simply dragging their mouse over the picture to access different vantage points, as opposed to traditional channels that only offer a fixed field of view. Initial content will include such items as a trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, clips featuring Saturday Night Live and workouts with basketball virtuoso LeBron James.

It has also been announced that 20th Century Fox will be making more than 100 movie titles available through a new Facebook platform, “Oculus Video” including Gone Girl, The Maze Runner and Birdman.  I can’t imagine that these titles will be made interactive any time soon, but the tie-in to Facebook’s user base along with the ability to create a more immersive experience by expanding the field of view, is still significant even if does not offer a VR experience. WideAngleViewingWith the use of headsets, a small mobile device can now offer a 3D viewing experience similar to a very large screen, and with an ever-increasing trend toward mobile content consumption, the Industry is taking this new platform very seriously.

Longtime DCS member and former RED Digital Cinema “Leader of the Rebellion” Ted Schilowitz is now on the payroll of 20th Century Fox with the title “Futurist." He is charged with exploring vehicles that take advantage of new technology and VR is at the top of the list. As part of that effort a short test film was created during principal photography of the Reese Witherspoon/Laura Dern starrer Wild. Another notable project is a stand alone VR short film to be released in conjunction with Ridley Scott’s upcoming SciFi feature, The Martian.

Of course, Sony has the ability to leverage their position as both an owner of a major content library and one of the leading game platforms in developing PlayStation VR. Previously called the Project Morpheus, the Sony headset system should be released soon, and when it does arrive to market, it will already have what might elude other hardware providers, a rich line up of content, both games and movies.

JauntMeanwhile, Disney was the lead investor on a $65 million funding round for Jaunt VR, a virtual reality technology company that has developed an end-to-end platform for cinematic VR content creation. This includes custom designed 360-degree cameras, software for stitching the footage together, and a distribution system.

Lionsgate and Samsung have just revealed plans for a VR short for Insurgent and Samsung has also initiated a partnership with Cirque du Soleil. In the broadcast world, CNN has announced that they will live stream the full Democratic presidential debate in VR on October 13th. This after the success of showing short VR highlights following the recent Republican debate.

Netflix and Hulu are also major players on the VR bandwagon with plans to launch new virtual-reality apps that will offer a way to explore content in 3D; (and you thought 3D was dead.) Hulu’s VR app will reportedly feature immersive 3D environments that will allow subscribers to stream the service’s 2D library as well as original VR content. Hulu has also said it will produce original content and curate films for VR platforms, starting with a short film as bonus material for the series RocketJump: The Show.

OculusrifttThings are also moving forward quickly on the display hardware front. While higher end headsets like the Oculus Rift are basically like having a computer screen strapped to the head, less expensive alternatives like Google’s Cardboard act as an attachment to ordinary cell phones. The most advanced systems still need to be tethered to a computer, but they can offer a much richer VR experience with enhancements such as hand, body, and even eye tracking. Googlecardboard2Mobile devices, however, are quickly gaining computational power, and are already taking advantage of spacial location detection to allow the viewer to roam around selecting which direction they will look with 360-degrees of interactivity.

Samsung Gear VRSamsung has unveiled the new Gear VR headset, and like the first version of Gear VR introduced last year, it makes use of a consumer’s phone for computing and displaying VR, but is said to be 22% lighter weight, and offer better motion sensors to perform gyroscopic and acceleration functions. The new units will start selling in the US during the Fall, just in time for the Holiday Season, with a retail price of $99.00US, and should be available around the world soon after. The device will, of course, only work with Samsung smart phones, including the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy Note5 with the idea to spur more phone sales in addition to the headsets.

When it arrives, the Sony’s PlayStation VR headset is said to come with a 5.7 inch 1920 X RGB X 1080 OLED display. For a company so focused on 4K throughout its product line, I was surprised the headsets were not higher resolution, but they must have decided it was more important to eliminate motion blur with a 120 fps frame rate. A higher refresh rate is critical for a smooth gaming experience, but high frame rate together with 4K resolution requires a lot of processing power, perhaps more than they were willing to throw at it. However, with Moore’s law and market forces constantly bringing chip prices down, I’m sure it will not be long before we see Playstation VR in both 4K and 120fps.

Although early virtual reality devices mostly highlight gaming, many expect VR to really come into its own as it becomes a distribution platform for Entertainment, Sports, and let's not forget Porn. Yes, porn is big business, and was largely responsible for the rapid growth of home video a few decades back, so the smart money believes it will again play a significant roll in the deployment of VR. While production activity in that area is less publicized, you can bet there are many projects already in the pipeline to meet the impending demand.

It's only a matter of time before VR catches on in a big way and demand for content will grow exponentially. Thousands of app developers and content producers are busy creating this content while Studios cull their libraries to be ready for the expected turning point of VR. The Industry does not intend to be caught short again, as it was with 3D, where a dearth of content hobbled the adoption of hardware and distribution channels.

Important questions remain, however, such as how long can people comfortably wear head-mounted displays, and will there be issues of motion sickness, or worse, the possibility of triggering epileptic seizures? Will VR be suitable for narrative entertainment, or for something more experiential like a ride film, or perhaps both?

Filmmakers will also be required to learn a new cinematic language and figure out how to guide the viewer.  While a 360-degree cinematic world might create exciting new storytelling opportunities, it will also create tremendous challenges.  For example, there is a danger that the audience may become distracted and miss important story points as they amble around their 360 degree viewing environment.  And if they are wandering around creating their own unique experience, are they really all watching the same movie, the one designed by the Filmmaker?  Much experimentation and market research will be required to determine what works.

There is no question in my mind that VR is now at a major turning point.  With advances in camera technology, geo-location tracking, and computational processing power, the VR experience will only continue to improve and get more affordable. Having been burned before, some of us might be tempted to ignore this trend, hoping to wait it out and see it subside, (a la 3D.)  I may have to stretch a little out of my technological comfort zone, but I aim to keep educating and preparing myself so I can participate now and in the future.  So stay tuned; you can bet that this will not be my last essay on the subject of VR.