Every time a new technology goes mainstream, it causes the same digital commotion. Our curiosity is piqued, we start to fantasise about all the possibilities, and loads of new questions arise. So where do we stand with virtual reality?
VR headsets are audio-visual gadgets that immerse the user in a 3D graphic universe (like a video game) or in a 360-degree video using specialised cameras.
In either case, you find yourself slap bang in the middle of a virtual world with the ability to experience your new environment from every which way. Thanks to ever-evolving tech, you can observe, interact, move around and even pick up objects in the 3D universe.
With each player truly a part of the video game, it is now also possible to press ‘save’ giving you the chance to revisit your virtual experiences. It is no surprise, then, that the film world is keeping a close eye on how this technology is developing.
Antoine Cayrol, a producer at pioneering French VR studio Okio, shared his thoughts on VR:
“VR is for gamers, of course, they are the point of entry. But after that, we are all free to dip into this ocean of entertainment. In the long run, I’d like downloading a VR movie to be just as accessible as watching a show on demand.”
Okio is one of the first film studios to pioneer immersive cinema. In collaboration with ARTE, Okio released the first 3D virtual reality film last February.
The short film, entitled I, Philip tells the story of an android who has the memories and personality of famous science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
Using real-time motion capture, this kind of short film will redefine the way films are made just a few years from now. The studio plans to shoot one film per year until 2020 with work on their next project, Alteration, set to kick off by the end of this year.
Antoine assures us that “several big American actors are interested in working on the film.” If VR movies are reaching even the highest spheres of Hollywood, this new production method must be a game-changer.
A more interactive kind of cinema:
Cayrol receives no less than a dozen scripts per week, but very few are usable. Because VR film gives viewers the freedom to look wherever they like, if they look in the wrong place at the wrong time they could lose key elements of the story, whether that be a look, a gesture or any other important piece of information.
"We should think of VR film as a new narrative form."
This freedom is only possible if a lot of attention is given to making it work at the script stage. It’s almost like Christopher Nolan’s Inception: they need to anticipate the viewer’s thoughts, and imagine where they will look at any given moment. In order to do this, spatialisation of sound and story is required.
In a typical film production, certain technicians only get involved towards the end of the process. For VR movies, set designers and sound engineers are involved early on and have a lot more say in the process.
It is a convergence of talents rather than a corporate affair. Directors of VR films may also call upon the talents of choreographers who come in to orchestrate scenes from multiple camera angles. In the end, the role of a VR director is a closer to that of a theatre director.
That’s why VR films take two to three times longer to make than a conventional film. They are also a lot more expensive. The equipment alone requires four to eight 360-degree cameras on average.
For example, the short film I, Philip lasts only 15 minutes, but cost almost $480,000 to make – a colossal sum. So we still have some time before we’ll be seeing VR replace conventional films in our local cinema, but the marketing world is certainly ready to get VR crazy.
Ad campaigns eager to use VR
‘VR boom’ is an expression on the lips of all specialists in the industry. As Philippe Degoul, digital director for agency BiggerBand says:
“The VR boom looks a lot like what the computer industry experienced in the 1970s. We are aware of the technology, but no standards exist for it yet. One thing is sure, though – VR is the technology that will steer and ultimately liberate our creativity.”
For the moment, VR is something like a giant global laboratory, with everyone tinkering with it in their own way. Except code has been replaced by 4K cameras, drones and walkie-talkies.
When it comes right down to it, the basic procedure for shooting a VR film or short ad is the same. Whether it’s intended as an ad or not, VR must capture and hold our attention in order to function as a new means of storytelling.
Are "govies" the next step?
As a space for video games, films and to a lesser extent, ads, VR headsets are a form of media in their own right. According to Smart VR Studio founder Jean Mariotte:
“Creating 3D worlds is still the future of VR for now. Real-time motion capture for VR films has its limits, because it is interactive.”
Immersive film-making will be astonishing at first, but as with any new technology, it will soon be old news and we’ll be ready for another new, enriching experience.
But will the line between film and video games finally disappear and give rise to a new genre?
Those familiar with VR agree on the answer: yes. Some have even started using a new term for this future media: ‘govie’, or a contraction of the words ‘game’ and ‘movie’.
The choose-your-own-adventure books of the ’90s were like a premonition of what was to come. David Cage’s video game Heavy Rain, which came out in 2010, was an additional indicator.
The possibilities are vast and for now, the limits are merely technical. Jean Mariotte concludes:
“For the moment, the 3D world is not as realistic as real-time motion capture because the equipment doesn’t allow for it yet. But several years from now, headsets will offer a virtual world that approximates reality. We will basically be in the Matrix.”
Sony’s VR PlayStation
On October 13, Sony released its VR PlayStation. The virtual reality headset is special enough to please the most avid gamers while also appealing to people curious to discover the excitement of a new genre.
With so many possibilities ahead, and in celebration of the fact that reality always manages to catch up with fiction, Scott Bakula’s favourite catch phrase comes to mind: “Oh, bravo!”
Good job, reality.