Some more thoughts about Virtual Reality

Yes, we all know that VR is going to be BIG anytime soon. But are we ready for it?

My company, Ensoul, is going to showcase the pre-launch for a brand new VR product by the end of May / early June. Yes, we believe in it a lot and it’s a bit scary — it’s hard to tell, as of now, if VR is going to be the “next smartphone”, as the Google engineers boldly told us (whereas us being “vr content creators and web developers”) at the VR Symposium held in London or if it is going to scare the hell out of people, spurring rage-filled luddites to take to the streets, afraid of becoming some sort of Matrix-like, web slaves (oh, does this sound SO different from our everyday smartphone routine anyway?).

Thing is, it’s going to be something different, really different.

Caveat: from this point on, we’re in the land of yet-too-soon-to-be-proved prophecies. Some day in the future you might be reading the next lines in the “LOL ideas” on a sub-Reddit titled /LOLideas or yet this might be part of some “Romanin was the new Tesla, yet with no apparent moustache” meme. Time will tell.

First point: the future is now. But are we?

Ok, so Sony, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Samsung have already jumped on the VR bandwagon. Apple appears to be silent, but this doesn’t mean they’re sleeping
The big changes will happen — apparently — when Sony will release its own VR device for PS4 for the consumer market. Trust me, that’ll be a big change; quite for cheap (399$, the less pricey of all high range VR viewers as of now) AND in the best possible world for Virtual Reality: a heavy calculation — easy scriptable, one-final-device-only world (think how many more performance variables working on thousands of different smartphones), where you will be able to roam in an environment that gives you complete freedom. Yes, video games guys will have it easy (just kidding, guys: we all know how much work is going to involve, after all). But think now about 360 degrees, 3D real video. Are we really sure it is worth it?

I mean: we have two eyes, and yes, we have a head that can look around and a body that can move around. BUT our vision is binary, and our sense of narration is based on frontal, linear viewing. We attribute a meaning to the universe around us by creating a narration with what we see in front of us. And in most cases it turns out to be perfectly sufficient.
Now imagine being brought into a room where lots of things happen around you; no matter how good you are, your brain would strain to simplify events into a linear stream of thought. On the other hand, if this didnt’ happen for some reason, it would turn into a chaotic, unpleasant experience, leaving us with a sense of disappointment in case we missed something crucial.
I’m not saying that this is bad in any way: i’m implying that we might be not culturally ready for this at the moment.

Because in the “gaming” universe —as well as that of YouTube experimental videos — sound can guide you to tilt your head around — golden rule, rotation is the viewer’s choice — but unless you don’t turn your head in time the whole narration stops, or gets fuzzy and messed up. 
Bad, bad experience.

No one could be Fellini before movies were invented.

Again, this implies that at the moment video content — at least at the beginning — might get very repetitive after a very short while. So dangerously repetitive to put all the VR movement at the risk to become a fad (we’ll see later why this will probably not happen anyway). We don’t run the risk of having chaotic content only: we also run the risk that the little produced content is simply uncomfortable before uninteresting. I was in my living room testing my first 360° camera. My wife Beatrice was standing on the outer side of the couch reading a book, as i flipped the camera around to point it at her (i mean — how do you point a 360° camera at someone? that’s already a misconception, but it was the first time for me too). I was later enjoying the video playback with a Google Cardboard, shrieking in excitement like some One Direction teenage fan when WHOOPS the whole world turned around — and i nearly threw up on our couch. What had happened? It was when i rotated the camera. I had just experienced what the Google guys dubbed one month later as the meathook effect. Somebody crams a meathook down your spine and turns you around like a puppet. How terrible is that? 
So, we have 360° 3D vision, right, but we have to follow someone’s path to have a story OR we throw up. Turn here, turn there, a la derecha, a la cintura. Yikes. How terribly unsexy.

Consider it even on a less structured scale: in my honeymoon, i visited the Louisiana museum in Denmark. It was a perfect day: the sun glared kindly on the Baltic sea, Swede islands were on sight and looked adorable, lots of tiny ships were sailing, pushed silently by a gentle breeze. The museum’s wonderful building was behind me, and kids laughed in the garden. I held Beatrice’s hand, and it was all perfect, every single detail. 
But in every moment i might have stood up and changed my mind on my directions.

Now imagine you have this in 360° AND 3D view. And yes, it’s all perfect and cool. But again, it’s a movie. You have no freedom: you watch a more elaborate environment, sure, but again, it’s a movie, and in a 360° environment, even if you watch the movie several times, you will fear missing out something vital anyway. I can watch a panorama for 10 minutes, but then, as beautiful the experience might get anyway — it’s a movie. Is it worth — in its worst case — holding a mask and having itchy eyes anyway?
This means once again: beautiful but pointless content. And we all know what happened to 3D home tv’s.

A nerdier nerd

Now, let me go further into that. 
We have a device we have to put on our eyes. And that’s already uncomfortable to a newbie. Imagine using it with your 60-years-old, technically unexperienced aunt. You lose contact with your usual world in a second. Ok, you have the so-much-expected wow factor when you put it on and experience VR, but after a while it turns out to make people seasick and with sore eyes. Again, it’s easy to figure out that some people will freak out, feeling constrained and powerless only because they’re wearing the device. Being highly optimistical i will say that 30% of people will refuse VR after their first attempt. Then the second part will come in: “ok, it’s cool — what next?”. The next thing is that possibly you might be handed a joypad — a common 4 button 2 levers joypad, a breeze for the average gamer, but a joypad she will not be able to see, creating friction between her eyes that see something else and her hands that touch something that your eyes can’t see — and she will be told “DO SOMETHING”. Anxious because of the mask, she will try to randomly push some levers and wait for something to happen. Something that might be also extremely pointless: “ok, i moved 5 cm onwards, it took like 2 minutes to recalculate shadows AND i moved 5 cm onwards and everything looks pretty much the same. This is not funny”. No, auntie, this is not funny: for these people — a vast majority — it will be a non sequitur.

A definitely more comfortable way to experience contexts might be using eye guide — with the pointer that most VR programs use, a look-and-click interface, so to say, and with common 360° photographs. If you are a tourist experiencing the sight from the top of the pyramids, yes, some movement here and there might result in a more vivid experience, but which is its cost in terms of performance? Remember — too — that for technical reasons VR video gives its best from 50cm to 20m — nice to have drone video shoots, but does this look 3D? Not really. Higher bandwidth usage, same disorientation feeling as above. Isn’t this overly complicated?

How i won the VVar

Again, in this overly complicated new world, simplicity will be the key. In my humble opinion i think that we will all know that VR is not just a fad the day cell phones will have TWO cameras in them. And this is a tendency which is already slowly starting to surface
I mean: stereoscopic view is just two cameras held at a distance of 7cm and whose movies are put side by side. Most smartphones are way longer than 7cm. How long do you think it will take before Samsung — or maybe Apple? — puts two cameras on the phone at that distance? And well, this might be WAY more interesting than 360° 3D video: you are watching your life as you saw it — in its linear narration — BUT in glorious, economic 3D.
At this point the plot thickens: there will NOT be only one device to experience VR, and not one approach. We have chosen ours — the web based approach. No, we will not get mad for photorealistic detail but we will service our customers with structured, web-layered and web-served VR content.

At Ensoul we have our strategy for that.
Let’s face it — after all, 360° content is cool, easy to understand, and clear — you can’t cheat on 360° content — if a place is ugly, you just can’t fake it. 
Our approach is to serve content that is both 2D and 3D at the same time and with the same footage and the same feeling: again, it’s important that content is USEFUL before BEAUTIFUL. You can be entertained from beautiful content once, maybe twice in a row, but before it turns into the 3DTV wreck, we work in both worlds, starting from web.

VR will be soon absorbed by our everyday life like internet and smartphones before it. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to serve both worlds together until the market gets mature. That’s our bet.

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