When done well, Virtual Reality is a trip to unknown, far-off and fantastic lands, a flight of fancy, a peek into a parallel universe and a foray into the future of entertainment.
However, during 2016, the hype over VR reached epic proportions and, with notable exceptions (read on), content has remained limited in both scope and ambition. Mainly because the installed user base, or number of HMDs sold (head mounted devices: like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR or HTC Vive), is, well, no one is releasing official sales figures at this time. So you can bet that’s not enough for a sustainable content ecosystem. Also, have you tried wearing one of those HMD units for more than 7 minutes? Not only do manufacturers need to fix the nausea issue – but the sheer weight of the device smooshes down on your cheekbones in a really unpleasant manner. If you wear mascara, the fogging/moisture problem will ensure you’re not wearing it by the time you remove the HMD.
So what have we seen this year that justifies the investment?
Most of it is still in the Lab, or, more specifically, hybrid technology experimental “skunk works” outfits playing around with the latest geek gear.
Three worth checking out are MPC, 8i and VR Nerds.
The latter is based out of Germany and is a darling on the emerging technology scene. Sara Vogl, a self-professed VR “shaman” guides users through “Lucid Trips” a fantastical game which takes full advantage of the surreal aspects of VR. You float into space, navigate using trajectory controllers and power down on the planet to refuel. It’s a strangely compelling and affecting experience.
At the other end of the budgetary scale, MPC, based in Los Angeles and part of Technicolor’s Research & Innovation Group, produced a very high-end Kubrick-inspired “Cinematic VR” thrilling “test drive” for Faraday Future concept cars. They’ve also done movie marketing for Hollywood Studios including 20th Century Fox (The Martian VR Experience). We tried out their promo for Sony Pictures’ Goosebumps – popped on an HMD and took a hair-raising ride with Jack Black and yes, it made us want to see the movie again – so that worked.
Then there’s 8i. The company launched in New Zealand and recently opened an L.A. office, temporarily located on a soundstage at Culver Studios (where Citizen Kane was shot). They have serious Hollywood credibility – 8i’s Co-Founder/CTO, Eugene d’Eon, came from Weta Digital, the company started by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). We went along to watch 8i capture real-life humans (as opposed to making digitally-rendered and animated characters), turn them into volumetric holograms and insert them into VR products. Their work goes beyond games, movie extensions and promos – into remote digital education. For example, 8i created a VR tool for beauty giant L’Oréal, enabling them to roll out hair stylist tutorials quickly and easily across the globe.
If you’re looking for hints of what’s possible for the entertainment industry with VR – look to medicine and the military – both sectors have been using the technology for a while now. In 2016 the Mayday Fund co-hosted an all day workshop in Los Angeles where doctors presented their findings in using VR to alleviate chronic pain in burn survivors during wound cleaning. A pioneer in VR, Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, now based at USC Institute for Creative Technologies, won funding from several Army research bodies to support his project “Bravemind”, a clinical VR immersive environment, which helps soldiers returning from war zones with PTSD.
So what doesn’t work? Simply put, narrative content, the kind you’d see on TV or streaming services. VR is not built for linear storytelling. You can’t direct, manipulate or control the user’s experience, as Doug Liman (Bourne Identity), admitted at the press launch of Invisible, his VR episodic drama series for Jaunt VR.
So what doesn’t work? Simply put, narrative content, the kind you’d see on TV or streaming services.
What needs to happen to make VR a viable business for Hollywood? A few things. The design of HMDs needs to improve – more in the direction of augmented reality lightweight glasses and binaural sound ear pieces – and the price per unit must fall to create a significant user base.
Expect the big players in the camera-optics business, like ARRI, Red and Canon, to join the stereoscopic 360-degree game. At the moment it’s a bunch of tech companies who are leading the way, most notably Google (Jump VR), Nokia (OZO) and Jaunt VR (their rig is so high end you can’t buy it, it’s a rental-only package from facilities house Radiant Images). But cinematographers trust the brands they know, especially when reputations are on the line.
Lastly – imagination is required. Too much of the current crop of VR product relies on brief spectacle. But once you’ve seen it, you’ll not watch it again. Hollywood needs strong franchises, repeat viewing, a desire to see more and tell others about it.
Which brings us to Harry Potter.
If you want to see what’s possible in VR with the latest gear, a phenomenal budget, stunning visuals and an extraordinary brand, go to Universal Studios Hollywood and head to Hogwarts. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride has it all: dome projection, 3D high resolution, state of the art audio, robotic movement controlled “enchanted benches” for scream-inducing death-defying drops and the most sublime flights. It’s a salutary seminar in what’s possible within this new fully immersive and incredible medium.