Major transitions in storytelling media are nothing new. In the 1920s, silent movies gave way to films with sound. In the 1940s and ’50s, televisions increasingly occupied the space in living rooms where radios once sat. With each transition, content creators struggled to adapt storytelling conventions to the new technology. There was much excitement, experimentation and risk—and a good deal of confusion.
Today, it’s happening again, this time with virtual reality (VR). Companies from Facebook, Google and Netflix in Silicon Valley and production houses in Hollywood are grappling with VR as a next-generation storytelling medium. On March 28, the VR movement passed a major milestone when Facebook-owned Oculus shipped its first VR headsets—aka the Rift—to U.S. consumers.
“It’s exciting,” says April Warren, a Los Angeles-based visual effects professional working in VR whose film credits include Avatar, The Amazing Spider-Man and Maleficent. “It’s an up-and-coming field, and yet there are so many problems we haven’t solved. How do you tell a story in VR? What is the language of VR filmmaking?”
In VR, the user is immersed in a 3D world that she can move through and interact with, courtesy of a headset such as the Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, plus a powerful computer. A number of short, experimental VR films are generating buzz and giving users a peek into this brand-new era of immersive entertainment.
One of the most anticipated is The Martian VR Experience—a 15-20-minute VR adventure from 20th Century Fox slated for release this year. Executive produced by Ridley Scott and directed by two-time Oscar winner Robert Stromberg, it’s a companion piece to the hit movie The Martian. It puts users in the shoes of astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) and tasks them with helping him survive. Check out the preview released last November to mark the launch of the new Samsung Gear VR headset.
The challenges of the new medium are many. For content creators, there’s the head-scratcher of how to create a storyline for an “audience” that can turn 360 degrees and direct their attention anywhere they want in the virtual world.
“It feels very different to be in an immersive VR world than to watch a movie, even a 3D one, on a screen,” Warren says. “Are you a participant or an observer? We’re still playing with that.”
The technology challenges are equally daunting. One of the gnarliest has been eliminating the wooziness that many users report with extended use of a VR headset. But the high-end headsets now available to consumers have largely solved this issue.
One challenge with no end in sight is the massive amounts of data involved in VR. The finished master copy of a recent VR short film was impossibly large 8K x 4K resolution—about four times the resolution of a Hollywood film master. Its 8 terabytes of data would require 160 Blu-ray discs. Both those who create VR films and those who consume them need high-end graphics cards and considerable computing horsepower. And sending VR films over the Internet or cellular networks to users’ phones?
“A new trend is streaming live events,” Warren says. “That’s a lot of data flowing upstream and downstream.”
VR or not VR?
Which brings us to the confusion. Not all VR is created equal. Watered-down versions give users a taste of the VR experience at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Phone-based headsets like Google Cardboard are a case in point. Users can wear the cardboard headsets, which cost less than a latte, to view 360-degree videos.
There’s much debate in the VR community as to whether these 360-degree videos are, in fact, VR. 360-degree videos are essentially flat, equirectangular videos that are morphed into a sphere for playback on a VR headset. They can be monoscopic or stereoscopic. Stereo 360-degree videos give the perception of depth, but are harder to do and often lower resolution, so content creators prefer mono videos.
The real wow factor here is that you can literally look anywhere you want in the 360-degree world—whether you’re flying with the Blue Angels or speeding across the Jakku desert from Star Wars (mono), or caught in an urban gunfight (stereo). Scrolling around the 360-degree world in these videos (you’ll need the Chrome browser) gives a remarkable “you are there” feeling, which becomes even more immersive with a headset.
It’s even sparked what some have called a VR journalism revolution. Last fall, CNN live-streamed the Democratic debates to users of the Samsung Gear VR headset. And The New York Times gave away over a million Cardboard headsets to subscribers and regularly posts 360-degree news videos, like this one of a vigil after the recent bombings in Brussels.
But 360-degree videos are a far cry from the full VR experience, which will set you back $600 for the Oculus Rift, plus another $1,000 for an Oculus-ready PC, and even more for the HTC Vive. If you’re in the market for one of these, another VR short worth checking out is Aperture Science from Valve and HTC. Here’s a demo of the film, in which the user is tasked with repairing a broken robot. And, for fuzzier fare, there’s the delightful Henry from Oculus Story Studio, which takes you inside the world of a lonesome but lovable hedgehog.
So what does the future of VR hold?
With new players jumping onto the VR bandwagon every week, that’s anyone’s guess. Warren predicts that, as graphics cards and computer processors get faster and cheaper, VR will explode in the coming years. And the major players won’t be the big names and studios of the filmmaking world.
“It will be the people who can iterate the fastest, who are doing this in their spare time and can afford to experiment and play around with it,” she says. “That’s one of the great things about VR: If you have a headset and a computer, you have the ability to make content.”