While attending Internet Week New York 2015 last month, I took in the prescient panel entitled “Virtual Reality: The New Hub for Storytelling”. The participants, Mike Woods Executive Creative Director and Head of VR Studio at Framestore, David Payne Chief Digital Officer at Gannett and Michael Rothenberg, Founder and CEO, Rothenberg Ventures, gave an overview of the current state of virtual reality, moderated by Ann Christine, Creative Editor at Marie Claire.
Ann Christine kicked off the conversation by stating “What’s interesting about virtual reality projects, in order to actually see how great they are, you have to experience them for yourself.” Just prior to entering the panel I tried this for myself experiencing VRSE and Chris Milk’s recent New York Times piece, “Walking New York” . I was an instant VR convert.
Maintaining VR Interest
Mike Woods set the background for the current surge in VR interest, sparked by the stunning effects of the 3D movie Avatar in 2009. While Woods may be slightly biased (his studio worked on this film), he also pointed out there’s been a sharp decrease in interest in the technology due to lack of quality content. And then there’s the quips from audience goers since, such as ‘I don’t like 3D, 3D is not for me, 3D makes me sick’. Woods said “That’s not true, 3D is what you see every day. But the damage was done.” To counteract this, the panel agreed, VR needs to both get in the hands of users and feature good content.
“Hardware has raced ahead of content”
Recent years have seen vast advancements in VR headset hardware, especially in terms of variety, fidelity or resolution and leaness of the VR headset. An explosion of devices from the high end heavy duty StreamVR by Valve to the cardboard DIY Google Cardboard has meant a broader audience can experience VR for themselves. But the content has fallen way behind. The industry is desperately in need of VR studios to create quality and boundary pushing content. Mr. Woods put out a call to the gaming developer community to up their contributions to VR experiences. While game developers have advanced 3D and animation skills, their presence is missing.
A misconception among clients that Mr. Woods works with is that VR production is no different from film production. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creating a 360 degree world requires a completely different skillset and vocabulary. The most glaring and common mistake made in VR production is motion sickness. “Its very easy to be made very sick, very quickly”, Woods confirms.
Storytelling and Expectations
Mike Woods gave a wonderful summary of “The key thing about storytelling is that when I go to the cinema, I know what’s expected of me. I need to just sit back and watch a screen. I already understand that before I step foot into the theater and sit down. People put on a VR set now, we don’t know yet what’s expected of us, what’s supposed to happen. We’re all just doing demos and tech demos right now.” - Mike Woods. A newer form of storytelling will require greater understanding both by developers and the audience in terms of what to expect in a VR experience. This means more production and consumption - and according to this panel, it’s already beginning to take off.
3D Development software is going open source
Epic Games announced that their historically expensive Unreal Engine 4 development kit is now free to the public. This kit along with the Unity Game Engine which has been open source since its inception, allow anyone to for development. Used by Mike Wood’s VR studio at Framestore, Unreal’s engine is tailored towards creating high quality the video game console and VR environments. The gaming industry has been notoriously lacking in their contribution to virtual reality development.
Mike Rothenberg surveyed a variety of practical applications that are currently being used, specifically in the field of healthcare. A company called Fove has a headset that uses eye tracking to help people with muscular distrophy play piano. Phobia Management is being addressed by companies like Sious where people can practices their phobias. Fear of driving, fear of heights and even fear of spiders are some of the topics that are addressed in a safe environment where they have a controlled experience and in which an exit is always provided just by removing their headset. Deep Stream is a company working in the field of pain management. It won’t cure your pain but it can distract and focus you. Children’s hospitals in Washington are using it to put child burn victims into a “Snow World” to help relieve some of the pain of bandage removal, and thus, reducing dependence on opiates.
One of my favorite parts of VRSE and Chris Milk’s “Walking New York” piece was experiencing a 360 video of the artist explaining his work in the artist’s studio. It was quite amazing to be able to glance around the room during the conversation just as I imagine I would if I were really there. I was learning about the essence of the work simply by taking in the ambience, sights and sounds so seamlessly.
As Chris Milk, one of the leading VR designers states in his TED Talk, “We are just scratching the service of the true power of virtual reality.” Virtual reality has the means to “connect humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other.”
“Have you tried virtual reality for yourself? If so, what do you imagine we can do with this?” This seems to me to have been the overarching message and challenge of these panelists at this Internet Week NY talk. It is only from this starting point that begin to understand its impact and potential.
Content is the Key. Where is it? Yes, game developers need to get involved. Games are going to be absolutely key in the evolution of VR. Unreal 4 engine's open world capability is extremely promising.
@cbicourt Yep. And judging from E3 last week, and the announcement of Hololens with Minecraft, it's happening. Now, if that can be applied to storytelling..