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TO BE REAL: The Rise Of Virtual Reality

Posted By Brian Seth Hurst, Monday, January 4, 2016

I am in a Dystopian World.  Something has happened that has altered the course of society. I am watching a woman, bereft over the loss of her husband and desperate to be with him again. To get there she dons a pair of Mad Max-style goggles. The shot changes and suddenly I have become her. And I am lying in bed face to face in the morning light with her husband brought to life again, looking into his clear, loving and content blue eyes as he asks me (as her) "What would you like to do today?” The effect is nothing short of stunning. I know not only why she loves him but also why she misses him, and I can actually "feel” the experience. I am in a head-mounted display at the Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival and in the world that independent VR Filmmaker Connor Hair has created in his 12-minute film, Real. Hair, by moving from 2D stereoscopic into 180° VR has succeeded in the emerging art of VR storytelling and what I have come to call "immersive forward moving narrative.”

Virtual Reality certainly is not new but shifted in 2014 when the barriers to commercial access came down for both filmmakers and consumers. Two significant developments seemed to light the wildfire that has swept though not just Hollywood but also other business verticals from medicine to education and journalism: This was the launch of mobile-phone based VR with the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition HMD for certain Samsung phones in December of 2014 and the launch of Google Cardboard in June of 2014. Suddenly consumers didn’t have to wait for the much-talked-about Oculus Rift (set to release first quarter 2016) or the HTC VIVE (slated for limited release this Christmas and full release in the first quarter), both of which will be tethered to a PC; or the Sony PlayStation VR experience connected to the game console, expected sometime in the first half of 2016.

Mobile VR could bring the experience to the masses. TechCrunch estimated in May that more than 1 million units had been shipped. You can easily add another million to that units distributed free by the New York Times in its quest to be more journalistically relevant. The NYT VR platform launched the first week in November with The Displaced, a collaboration with VR production company Verse. And yes, Google Cardboard is made of cardboard, and lenses, as a relatively inexpensive and often given-away-free HMD. But the Cardboard spec is the basis for many other forthcoming plastic HMDs including Mattel’s brilliant View-Master VR available now.

Like it or not, VR is real and it is here to stay. It’s still the Wild West with a general lack of standards, best practices and business models and a host of technical issues that touch every point on the content value chain from production to distribution. And yet, the challenges are being solved at a truly rapid rate as investment pours into the tech side. Leading global consulting firm KZero Worldswide estimates that including hardware and software, the consumer virtual reality market will be worth $5 billion by 2018. The market buzz is so loud you long to get inside a VR HMD just to escape. VR is a hyper-accelerated market. There may even be a bubble forming. It seems not a day passes without a significant announcement. If you think being inside a VR experience can be dizzying, try tracking the developments on behalf of clients who are clamoring to create VR experiences and immersive narrative. Welcome to the Wild West.

Backing up Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR (both technology and studio), Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook Town Hall on June 30, 2015 "… we're working on VR because I think it's the next major computing and communication platform after phones. In the future we'll probably still carry phones in our pockets, but I think we'll also have glasses on our faces that can help us out throughout the day and give us the ability to share our experiences with those we love in completely immersive and new ways that aren't possible today.”

Facebook and Google are going head to head. Both companies have enabled 360 video uploading and YouTube now allows you to click an icon when watching VR content optimized for Cardboard. In May, Google announced Jump, which includes the GoPro Odyssey ($15,000) 360 camera array and a cloud-based stitching system. (Stitching is the use of software to integrate all the footage from cameras into a spherical video.) Other significant developments include the Disney-led $65 million investment round in Jaunt, a very busy VR start-up that has a proprietary camera, stitching software, work flow and a studio; and a new joint venture between Digital Domain and Canadian start-up Immersive Media called IM360 which touts an all-in-one VR creation hosting and distribution platform. New 360 Video/VR distribution companies Vrideo and Littlstar are well funded and have become the home for VR creators.

PowerhouseDefy Media—home of brandsSmosh, Break andAddicting Games—has partnered with VR camera maker360Fly(available at Best Buy for $399) for aVR Platform, which among others things will be the home for "interactive originals.” There is quite a selection of lower-priced consumer cameras that have onboard stitching which are not only great for experimenting. They are great for VR previz.

In the same busy week, Los Angeles-based andSpielberg-advisedthe Virtual Reality Co.announced the launch of the VRC Recording Studiobuilt to capitalize on the rapidly emerging trend of 360 music videos. Vrse (led by Chris Milk and Emmy® Award winnerAaron Koblin) positioned itself to become "Virtual Reality’s next HBO, PBS and Pixar,” with the hiring ofRdio CEO Drew Larner as its next COO, Re/code observed. And finally, adding a little "blue” color to the mix, TechCrunch heralded the arrival of the eJaculator as "a VR-Based pleasure machine for the lads.” Seriously.

Creatively, things are all over the place in a fertile ground for experimentation. While the physical and psychological effects of VR are being researched by educational institutions such as theStanford Virtual Human Interaction Laband theUSC Institute for Creative Technologies,VR pioneers likeJohn CarmackofOculusare rapidly solving tech challenges. New companies from tool set creators and software, to camera and rig companies, to studios and agencies seem to be popping up almost daily, drafting behind the giant speeding truck that is VR.

Finally there’s the content. It’s also exploding. Some of it is extraordinary and groundbreaking and some of well … not so much. It seems a little early for VR Awards shows but we’ve got them. Coming from brands, studios and TV networks we have mostly immersive experiences meaning you are just standing in place "looking around” with some bit of narrative and some fall into the gimmick category with one offs for fun and promotion. As with anything new, money is coming from marketing and advertising budgets. More than 100 brands from Lexus and Coke to Marriott and Toms Shoes have jumped in, as has ABC Family, Fox Sports, NBC, SyFy and HBO.

Then there are of course the games. Lots of games. It seems the most artistry is happening in the independent VR community. TheKaleidoscope VR Film Festival that recently toured the U.S. is solid evidence of this and the coming VR Film Festival in Las Vegas during CES should provide a great glimpse of the VR storytelling future. Both innovation and imagination are at work here from art to immersive narrative.

So, what does this mean to us as producers? Technology, regardless of its capability, is nothing without content, and by that I mean it is nothing without great storytelling. A note of caution here in that VR filmmaking is an entirely different animal. VR storytelling is literally a new discipline and genre that is being learned on the fly right now through trail and error. I liken it to the time when storytellers took over the motion-picture camera from the engineers and the artistry of cinema was born.

One opportunity, however, is clear. Aaron Luber, head of partnerships for Google’s Cardboard, pointed to our opportunity best. "Content is a big question mark right now. This is where we've got a big bottleneck in terms of just the ability to create content … as well as ideas. Content is one of the most critical pieces of the type of thinking we need to be having in VR today.”This brings me back to Connor Hair. An award winning cinematographer, he is a hacker in every great sense of the word. He is not constrained by the traditional "language” of film nor is he so enamored of the technology that he forgets that the story is what matters. Yet he understands the inherent power of the technology to move the audience. And after all, isn’t that what every storyteller wants do to? His work is an example of technology in service to that story.

One other note, I had the privilege of hearing conflict journalist Christian Stephen, creator of the VR short documentary Welcome to Aleppo speak recently. He declared VR the most important journalistic tool he has ever had. Why? Because it brings the audience right into the story he tells. It’s no longer just a story, it’s the experience of story.

-Brian Seth Hurst is Co-Founder and Chief Storyteller of StoryTech where he works with networks, studios and storytellers in all aspects of VR from strategy and packaging to production and distribution.  He is also creator and executive producer of the forthcoming "determiNATION" from Bunim-Murray productions.
-Top/Header image is courtesy of Helen Situ/NextVR

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Posted Thursday, January 14, 2016
This is a fantastically helpful article! Thank you.
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