The headset cometh: A virtual reality content primer

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Though Henry may technically fall under the broad category of “immersive video”, it feels an entirely new plane of VR content for which there isn’t a category. Not yet, anyway. It’s like a gray area. Anything that allows you to duck and weave and turn and stretch to see things in a virtual environment, and anything that features a character that knows you’re there and can look you in the eyes (not just in the ‘camera’) goes far beyond just the ability to look around a 360-degree scene.

Virtual Cinema

Let’s jump back to the other side of the fourth wall for a moment to talk about the other major form of video content emerging for VR headsets: virtual cinema.

Where immersive video is captured and created specifically for a 360 degree platform, virtual cinema applications like Samsung Gear VR’s Virtual Cinema and the Oculus Cinema application for Rift allow users to watch existing 2D and stereoscopic video files in a headset.

These videos themselves aren’t immersive in nature, though. Instead, virtual cinema applications put viewers into a virtual space like a movie theater or home theater. In these applications, the viewer often has a seat placed in front of a screen (which is anywhere from the size of a large home television to an IMAX screen) and given something of a theater-like experience inside the headset. The video plays on the screen and while video isn’t immersive, the experience is.

Let’s say your living room is relatively comfortable. You’ve got a decent couch, which sits a decent distance away from a reasonably-sized television. Watching films and television is an enjoyable experience, though not often breathtaking. For big, stunning experiences, you go to the theater and pay $14 for a ticket, $6 for popcorn, $3 for a soda and only later add it up and feel ashamed. $23 for a 90 to 120-minute film experience is a lot of money for the opportunity to look at a big screen, surrounded by big speakers and a lot of folks who love talking and their cell phones.

The virtual cinema experience in VR essentially seeks to mimic the experience you might find in a movie theater. The screen feels huge. It feels like a theater screen–one that dwarfs even your 42″ 4K television. The sound is entirely under your control. If you’re a wimp like me, you can turn down the volume on a horror movie during the scary parts. Or, if you’re a big Fast & the Furious fan (also like me), you can take it as a cue to bump up the volume every time Dom says “Ride or Die.” You’re in control of your own theater experience, and it’s like having the entire place to yourself. No one’s talking or kicking your seat or texting or “forgetting” to turn off the ringers on their phones. If you’re a grump (like me), this is one hell of a selling point.

Virtual cinema is very different from immersive video, but no less appealing. Being able to replicate the movie theater experience on-demand, for free*, and in the comfort of your own home is an deliverable, and one that may very well change the way that we think about home entertainment.

“When you’re sitting in your living room and you can feel like you’re looking at a screen that’s the size of an IMAX screen,” says Spiteri, “where you literally have to crane your neck upwards to see the top of the screen and you have to pan your head to the left or the right…That’s a fundamentally different experience that consumers want and we think that the impact in the living room is going to be very significant.”

Studios like Twentieth Century FOX, Lionsgate and Legendary, along with content streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo and more are teaming up with headset makers to bring content to a mainstream VR market. Though some of the studios are working with immersive content as a way to develop new experiences around their IPs, they’re also making video content available in the virtual cinema applications, which is essentially a vote of confidence in the future of VR as a form of home entertainment, and speaks volumes about where VR content might be heading outside of the gaming world.

Gaming

Much of the talk about VR comes down to gaming, and that’s because gamers are going to make up the majority of the early adopters. Many game developers have long awaited the arrival of viable virtual reality tech and in turn, the technology behind the games industry is something of a driving force behind VR content. Gaming is leading the charge in content and consumption because gamers understand the dIn many ways, games are and always have been a natural fit for VR–immersive content made better with interactive elements is powerful and transformative, and that’s exactly what games will be.

To state the obvious, everything in VR right now is still in its infancy. Though we’re lightyears ahead of where we were just a year or two years ago in VR, the technology that comes one or two or five years from now is going to look and feel very different from the headsets that we’re strapping on today.

As such, many of the games that are coming to VR headsets now are experimental in nature. That’s not to say that they’re buggy or bad–not by any means. But the way games are being developed in VR now is with an attitude of innovation. Where console and PC games are mature markets and somewhat known quantities, there are new things to be discovered and implemented in VR–new game mechanics, new ways to conceive of space and expanse, and new methods for telling stories in-game.

Ustwo Games, the studio behind the hyper-successful mobile game Monument Valley, recently released Land’s End, a VR gaming experience for Samsung Gear VR. Land’s End is gorgeous, with sprawling maps inspired by real-world locations like Iceland and Stonehenge, and employs a gaze-based mechanic that lets gamers play with their eyes. As games like Land’s End find their way into the world of VR, the way that we use and interact with headsets and content is going to evolve.

The involvement of the games industry in VR content goes beyond simply making games, though. Using tools from the game development arsenal, creators are finding ways to make VR content that steps outside of the world of gaming.

“Most virtual reality content is actually being created using tools that were developed by the games industry,” said Palmer Luckey (Founder of Oculus) in short documentary piece from Unreal. “And that’s because the games industry is the only industry with the technology and the tools and the talent to create immersive, real-time 3D worlds.”

Already sporting blistering frame rate and rendering capabilities, game engines like Unreal Engine are made to handle the challenges of building immersive 3D worlds and maps, and aren’t just used for creating games.

“When you first jump into VR development, there are a few requirements that become rapidly apparent,” says Ray Davies, General Manager of Unreal Engine. “You need a rich rendering feature set to craft compelling visuals for the experience and you must maintain a high level of performance to avoid discomfort. You’ll also likely need features such as physics simulation and a particle effects system to create worlds that respond in believable ways, and allow you to make truly immersive experiences that take full advantage of the VR platform.”

Using Unreal Engine, creators have been able to build complex 3D worlds without having to develop the tools on their own. As gaming and VR have many of the same technical requirements and standards, creators have been able to circumvent the costly and time-consuming process of reinventing the proverbial wheel.

“All of these tools are effectively required for building modern high fidelity games,” says Davis, “and we’ve been refining them through many years of firsthand games development; which means VR developers using Unreal Engine are able to hit the ground running that much quicker. In addition, content creators are able to spend more time exploring what’s possible in VR instead of having to invest their time building custom tools.”

Though games have always been a natural fit for VR, it seems as though the films and games industry are poised to benefit from one another’s technical and creative tools.

“One of the first industries to flock to VR outside of game development was the film industry,” says Davis, “and many teams across the world have already built truly amazing VR storytelling experiences using Unreal Engine. Teams like Oculus Story Studio are tackling the traditional storytelling methods head-on with their pieces like Henry, while other teams, such as Kite & Lightning have created cinematic experiences like Senza Peso to fundamentally explore what is possible with this new medium. For the last several years many game developers were chasing after the high cinematic bar that films were pushing, and it’s interesting to see how the introduction of VR has changed that around as film creators are looking for more tools to create new types of content on the platform.”

Content Evolution

VR content, though impressive and transformative and even awe-inspiring as it may be, is just beginning. In many ways, it’s only just pulled itself from the primordial muck to become something great. It’s not unlike moving pictures or talkies or CGI–what we have now is incredible, and it’s going to get much, much better.

“If people are going to engage with the technology on a longer scale they’re going to need deeper, more affecting, more human stories to engage with,” said Vrse CEO Chris Milk in a Q&A with Re/code. “We, as an industry, have to be pushing that forward. Otherwise, the floodgates are going to open, the audiences are going to come, and they’re just going to get through the content very quickly and there will be nothing left.”

As VR content evolves, it’s going to change the way that creators create, the way viewers view, and the way we see everything.

“With a new technology that’s as exciting as VR,” says Byrne, “you can get lost in the euphoria of what it’s like to use VR for the first time and not sort of take a step back and say, ‘how does this change content’? And I think the answer is probably ‘fundamentally’.”

With better headset technology, libraries full of rich content, and the ability to access incredible experiences on-demand, we may very well see our living rooms evolve right along with VR. After all, WEVR’s Neville Spiteri points out that the involvement of studios and premium content-makers and IP holders indicates that they’re beginning to see “headsets as the next logical evolution of the screen to program for.”

The extent to and the ways in which VR will impact our lives remains to be seen, but the headset is coming, and it’s going to change everything.

2 Comments

Joel Stolarski

I’m really fascinated by VR. Been watching the progress in the headsets. Appreciate your take on some of the psychology behind what VR will be.

exhibit44

If we look at the last few revolutionary innovations, such as youtube, streaming, video chat, etc, in both mobile and desktop environments, they have all been hobbled by last-mile bandwidth, a problem that is especially glaring if you compare the experience in Korea or Taiwan or Europe to the terrible service in the US. VR bandwidth demand is far more piggy than any of those. If we cannot handle what we already have, how the heck is the rollout VR going to be any better? How will it not be worse? I can’t even get decent web 2.0 to operate on a connection I pay top dollar for.

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