The Second Coming Of Virtual Reality
Carlos Andrés Cuervo
What will the future look like when our brains cannot distinguish what is real from what is not? This has been a question when considering the advantages and disadvantages of Virtual Reality (VR). Although VR is not a new technology, in recent years, it has become a trending topic among software developers and manufacturers. Does the new buzz about this technology mean that we are in the verge of a renascence for multisensory experiences? Or is it just another gimmick that the entertainment industry is trying to push to generate revenue? It might be too early to answer these questions, but one thing is certain: Audiences are expecting the next “big thing” after the theatrical experience has decreased, and technology today is enabling the growth of interactivity. This makes Virtual Reality not only an interesting field to explore but also a thriving new business in the entertainment industry.
When defining Virtual Reality, it is often referred to as a derivate from 360 live action audio-visuals. VR is a completely immersive experience in all directions where the viewer can see 360 x 360 degrees. There is also computer-generated VR which is software based 3D graphics. In the VR experience, the viewer is the one in control of what parts of the screen he or she will see. Because VR is captured as an unwrapped 360 image that resembles a flat map of the globe, it is necessary to process the resulting images into a spherical visualization. All of this can be done either in camera or with stitching software, such as Kolor’s AutoPano Video or VideoSttich. The combination of capturing spherical images and processing them with software to compose large panoramas is just part of the process, as VR content needs a special system for viewing.
The history of VR could be dated back to the Victorian Stereoscopes of the 1800’s. These were cards with two images printed side by side, one for the right eye and one for the left eye. When the separate images were viewed through a double set of magnifying glasses, they appeared as a single image giving the illusion of depth and perspective in the z-axis. Nonetheless, most experts in the field of VR attribute the beginning of modern Virtual Reality to Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist that invented an electronic head-mounted display to view rudimentary computer-generated graphics. The inventions of Mr. Sutherland were primarily incorporated in military research, where the army’s top engineer, Thomas Furness, developed the first flight simulator system called the “Super Cockpit”. This system allowed military personnel to visualize the complex tasks of flying planes and driving tanks.
The military wasn’t the only one interested in “real looking” visualizations. By the 1970’s, the film industry as well as video game makers entered into the realm of computer graphics and simulations. Filmmaker Mort Heilig came out with a design that could be the first live action VR system. His first prototype was named “Sensorama”. It was an arcade-style cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat and scent producer. In Heilig’s imagination, his box was the "cinema of the future”.
When the floodgates for VR were opened, films in the late 70’s and early 80’s embraced the idea of Virtual Reality. Movies like Star Wars, Terminator and Jurassic Park benefited from the evolution of computer graphics, in the quest for virtual images with realistic rendering qualities. Cult films like Tron brought great attention to VR, and the idea of experiencing someone’s life through machines was explored in movies like “Brainstorm” and “Strange Days”. In the midst of this first “golden age” of VR, a feature film entirely produced with computer graphics, “The Lawnmower Man”, was probably the first immersive narrative experience in 360 degrees.
However, one of the precursors of modern Virtual Reality interfaces was the video game called “Dactyl Nightmare” - a first person shooter game that incorporated flaying dinosaurs in a pixelated landscape. Since then, video games have become an entry point into VR.
The first “golden age” of Virtual Reality faded away as the clunkiness of the systems and the primitive aesthetics of the images discouraged audiences from fully engaging in the experience.
As reported in 2013 by Fast Company, videogame sales have surpassed those of movies and music sales worldwide. This phenomenon has dramatically changed the way studios and manufacturers are looking at entertainment consumption. Some major companies are developing the next level of video game interactivity, while prominent brands are investing in VR as means for advertisement. According to the electronic news site TechCrunch, giant social network Facebook acquired Oculus VR in 2014 for a staggering $2 Billion. This acquisition put one of the pioneer VR projects on Facebook’s portfolio and paved the way for other big companies to follow. Soon after, Google announced its desire to develop their VR platform. Starting with project “Jump”, the company focused on creating and distributing VR content in their ecosystem. The “Jump Rig” is Google’s camera solution for capturing multiple angles for VR. While “Google Cardboard” is the company’s answer to the Oculus viewer at a fraction (virtually free) of what other systems in the market would cost. Along with these hardware developments, Google updated its YouTube player to reproduce 360 videos and use the gyroscope in most current smartphones, navigating the video as the device moves in space.
Following the footsteps of the two technology giants, more companies are creating hardware, software and viewing systems for Virtual Reality. Other players entering into the VR field are sports, live events and concerts, real state, architecture, travel, science, health, etc.
It seems as if Virtual Reality has entered a second “golden age”, full of potential and new challenges. One of those challenges is creating content that utilizes the technology in a way that is not only innovative but that also makes sense.
Computer-generated graphics have come a long way from the early days of “Dactyl Nightmare”. But it is in live action video that VR really shines. In order to create the perfect environment for “suspense of disbelieve”, filmmakers need to produce high definition images from multiple angles and stitch together the resulting images to reproduce a 360 x 360 image. This technique requires a special rig for several cameras; monitoring the recording is almost impossible, not to mention the considerations needed to hide the camera, sound and lighting equipment. This is crucial because in VR everything around can be seen.
The challenges to produce VR content continue in post-production. Unless the stitching of the images is done in camera, Special software is needed to process big amounts of data from each camera. Then, the editing application needs to find and compute the physical information on each frame to seamlessly join the multiple angles into a large panorama, before it can be conformed into an aspheric image.
Once this process is completed, it is important to understand where the content is going to be viewed. VR is essentially a single user interface, although new techniques and technologies are in development to create an experience for multiple users at the same time. Because the majority of VR headsets are designed to work with current smart phones, this makes it a very convenient platform for distribution.
More than ever, companies are jumping into the VR frenzy and offering free or paid services for hosting and deploying 360 content to mobile devices. Some of today’s leading companies are Vrse, Jaunt, Wearvr, Wevr, Streamvr, YouTube 360, among many others.
While it is true that producing and distributing VR content is somehow cumbersome, it is not nearly as expensive and difficult as it was back in the 70’s and 80’s. At the same time, the most important challenge for VR is in how the technology really appeals to the masses. Just as not every 3D movie is a hit the theatres, not every VR experience is well executed or interesting for the viewers.
Filmmakers have to adapt to the new storytelling rules and concentrate on ways to direct the viewer’s attention to specific parts of the screen or follow along a storyline.
But once the challenges are embraced, new creative ways to tell stories emerge and the potential of VR can really be taken to an entire new media, one that promises unique perspectives and brain-stimulating sensations.
Finally, the next frontier for VR continues to be the narrative space. Creating an immersive environment and directing the attention of the audience are just some of the things that filmmakers will have to figure out and master. Ahead, there will be more technical challenges such as maintaining exposure, stitching camera angles, managing large amounts of data, limited resolutions, and how to go beyond a single user experience. Nonetheless, Virtual Reality will be here for a long time. Manufacturers and content creators have already made major investments. VR has proved to be the platform of choice for immersive gaming, and with the games will come more movies, commercials, performances and live music shows.
In the near future, companies like Microsoft will integrate their augmented reality technologies with motion tracking and virtual reality to create the ultimate virtual universe. Households will display an array of interactive gadgets and appliances and products like Oculus, Kinect, Magic Leap, HTC, and others will resemble the living room in the iconic movie Back to The Future II.
Whatever the future looks like, it is certain that VR will be there, not only as an interesting field to explore, but also a thriving business in the entertainment industry.