A Fetish Conversation: WondaVR Test Case
I’ve been on the lookout for sometime to find software to help build 360 VR experiences in an easy, lower cost, and productive way. So far the projects I have worked on have been built with Unity, which produces an excellent final product- but always required a larger team even for the smallest of prototyping.
WondaVR seemed to offer a fix to this, and generally fantastically succeeds at this (with a couple small niggles to deal with later). If you don’t bother to read any further- suffice it to say: WondaVR is (almost) excellent and if you haven’t tried it, and they have a nice 14 day trial, then you really should.
Get it: WondaVR
I recently used the 14-day trial to put together a demo of an interactive conversational 360 VR piece that I created and showed at the Sbodio32 Pavilion at Milan Design Week in April 2017.
It was a hit.
But it was really only possible thanks to WondaVR. For a vast number of reasons that small businesses and freelancers will know all too well, I was working with exceptionally short deadlines between a million other project proposals that pop up like mushrooms and then disappear like spores. You know the drill.
Originally I considered creating for the exhibition a 360 Video that would run straight through, no interactivity, no stopping. Just one long loop. The content was pretty straight forward: it was a conversational experience where the user passively listens to individuals talk about their thoughts on fetish. Honestly- the subject matter was interesting so I suspect people would have stayed for a few minutes regardless of what format I presented it to them in. Regardless, I finished the filming only 1 week before exhibition opening day, and to be honest- didn’t actually get a chance to start STITCHING the footage until the Thursday before the Tuesday when the exhibition opened.
What I really wanted though, was full on dynamic interactive experience where the viewer transparently selected the conversation they were going to follow, simply through gaze tracking that would subtlety load and direct the experience.
But doing this is complicated in the best of situations, and I didn’t have enough time to build an interactive experience- or so I thought.
Wonda had recently made some updates to their software, and fresh off their email blast it was still in my mind and I decided to give it a closer look. I’ve given most “360 Interactive Design software” a pretty tepid response. Most are web based solutions, which while they might work great, for me are pretty useless. I have a crap internet connection at my home studio, and while I have fiberoptic at my co-working office- my workstations are not portable. Stitching on one machine, loading it on my Macbook, trucking over to the office, uploading, and then perhaps wanting to make a change- did not seem like the way forward with only three days to work with.
Wonda however runs directly on your desktop, which I like. Although I’ve made the switch to cloud based word-processors, that’s about the only type of software I’m really happy to work with in the cloud. Indeed I host my professional websites with Squarespace, and while it’s a great service- I’d give a small toe to be able to have their system run as an app on my local machine. Load times are frustrating and internet connections unreliable.
Wonda works very well on the desktop. On the subject of load times though, it could be a bit snappier, especially when importing footage.
When importing footage the app asks for confirmation that footage is 360 footage. I get why this is important, but when importing footage where I already went through the trouble to embed 360 metadata, it seems a bit redundant to need to confirm this for every file. It’s a small thing, but as soon as you start working with many 360 sequences it’s a hassle: once you start working with stereoscopic- it’s a real chore.
In general the media library could be better managed. For larger projects the limited view and sort options make it tricky to manage media. Maybe borrowing from Adobe Premier’s “Bin” concept would be useful.
Which brings me to my second niggling point: Stereoscopic support. WondaVR does support stereoscopic sequences, but in a bit of a strange round-about-way. While the app supports stereoscopic, the editor doesn’t. Which means first you need to import a monoscopic version of your stereoscopic footage, then after you create all your hotlinks, interactions, etc… then you need to import the stereoscopic version, name it correctly, and then tell the software to substitute your monoscopic version with the stereoscopic version. From that point in the editor you see the stereoscopic file but all your text/hotspots are in the wrong place and while in stereoscopic mode this is practically impossible to fix.
To be clear- stereoscopic support does work, I tested it, but it’s just not really well thought out at the moment. My project was filmed entirely in Stereoscopic 360, which I had originally intended to produce the final output in. However with 18 sequences (and I originally wanted more) I was faced with doubling my export time to create a monoscopic version of each file and then keeping track of 34 files in the final. My project was complicated enough as is, so I had to drop it.
My project also included Spatial audio- which again, WondaVR does support.
Once your app is packed up and on your GearVR spatial audio works, but like stereoscopic sequences, it’s not supported in the editor, nor in the (Very Awesome) Firefox browser preview function. This means that like stereoscopic it’s a bit of guesswork to figure out if it’s really working the way you wanted it. I have seen WebVR Spatial audio working in the past to great effect, it seems like it wouldn’t take much to get the Spatial audio working in the browser preview.
Which brings me to the preview function of the app. On your local machine WondaVR allows you to preview directly inside of Firefox (but not any other browser). This is excellent and works more or less as described. I wish the spatial audio worked, but in terms of getting a lighting fast preview of how your experience is coming together, it’s invaluable.
The GearVR experience is also similarly smooth. One click packs up all your files and it’s up to you to drag them onto your phones file system. From there you go through the gyrations to unmount the phone, pop it in the gear and preview away. There are several features that promise to make this process simpler but I didn’t have the chance to explore them. Regardless, I was happy.
While I can be critical, I can’t stress enough how great WondaVR is. It’s really a game changer for small studios or pro-typing developers. For the first time, you as the experience creator can actually whip together a functional mockup to give the programmers or have an approval from a client. Changing a scene, altering a transition is as easy as a few mouse clicks. It’s incredible.
There is one small thing though that in my mind (and for several other creators I’ve spoken with) might be a non-negotiable sticking point. The real difference between WondaVR making the jump from being a fast, capable pro-typing 360 interactive VR program to being an enterprise ready app creator for even the largest and most particular of clients is a tiny thing, but it’s bad:
Black Screen Transition Flicker. BSTF.
All transitions between sequences are broken by a moment of black flicker- a transition from when one sequence ends and the next begins. Even if you are jumping from one timecode point to another timecode point in the same sequence you need to contend with this moment of black flicker. For experiences like mine, which were designed with morph transitions so that it seems like a smooth interaction, the moment of blackness ruins the effect and takes the viewer momentarily out of the experience.
To be fair, none of my regular viewers noticed it- but some art directors I demo’ed the projects to caught on immediately. It’s the type of thing that once a client notices: They will see only that.
I reached out to WondaVR Support to ask about this, and they are aware of the problem. There seems to be no timeline for a fix however and I am somewhat worried the black screen is more a result of some underlining way the app or phone deals with loading media files in the WondaVR code. WondaVR was helpful, but they didn’t give me any reason to believe this bug will be going away anytime soon…
I’d like to finish this up with some positive notes. And they are really positive. To give an idea how easy WondaVR was to use: I built my entire app using their structure, from scratch, in one weekend with practically no prior experience using their platform. I demoed the app directly on my phone (which is linked to your instance of the software) in person at the Milan Design Week for 5 days straight for a good 8–10 hours per day. The experience was popular and engaging with many people spending and average of 10–15 minutes inside the app and some individuals as long as half an hour (seriously: I was impressed at it’s popularity).
In all this time my Samsung S6 never crashed or overheated once. The app stopped when not on someone’s head and picked up automatically without hesitation when in use. To say I was seriously impressed would be an understatement.
WondaVR is the next logical step forward for creators building and experimenting with interactive 360 experiences. It’s not a polished platform- yet, but it shows all the signs of getting there. Currently there’s nothing I’ve tried that would have allowed me to create an experience so complex, stable, and immersive in such a short amount of time. The black flicker between sequences is a problem- but isn’t noticeable unless your transitions are intended to be seamless. I would like more options and the ability to script interactions (to create more intelligent hotspots) and while they said by email that’s not on their road map: I hope they reconsider.
I strongly recommend WondaVR to small and large studios alike. If it’s not the solution for a final output, it’s still worth it’s cost as a prototyping tool alone.