Five Reasons VR Video is More Important Than You Thought
“360 spherical video? This is certainly not real VR.” I remember having this exact thought the first time I found out that filmmakers were planning to use VR headsets to immerse their audiences.
At the time (which was over a year ago), I was working with virtual reality applications made entirely up of 3D models. I didn’t get it. Who would want to watch a film with a headset strapped to their face? It doesn’t look that great. You can’t even move around it in. Not to mention the first time I watched a spherical video on the Samsung Gear VR, I felt like I was going to be sick.
Fast forward a year later and I am a firm believer that virtual reality will change the way we watch, share and create video content. Now, I’d to share some of these realizations I’ve had when it comes to the power of VR storytelling.
But first, lets start from the beginning…
What even is a VR video? Is it really “virtual reality”?
Most of us have seen 360 video by now, thanks to Facebook and YouTube. However, it’s not entirely clear how these videos even work.
360 video is produced by using multiple cameras’ viewpoints with overlapping FOVs (field-of-views) and stitching software. These cameras can range from 2 fisheye lenses (Ricoh Theta or Kodak PixPro), to 24 GoPros on a crazy looking rig (360 Heros), to a super-futuristic looking sphere with 8 sensors (Nokia Ozo).
The more cameras, the better. And of course, the higher the resolution, the better. The only limiting factor, really, is how much $$$ you have to spend on your production. After stitching and editing, the video file is delivered on a special interactive player. Currently, most of these video players are a spherical shape, although that will be changing soon as well.
A 360 video becomes “VR” when it is viewed inside of a headset, and a separate stream is delivered to each eye. Either the video source in each eye is the same (monoscopic) or slightly different to create depth perception (stereoscopic). The latter is much harder to do well, due to a variety of technical challenges.
As this technology became more popular last year, some people (aka VR-video-haters) claimed that 360 video isn’t “true VR” because it’s not as immersive as exploring a three-dimensional space made up of computer generated graphics.
Yes, for a quick-minute, I was one of these haters. But due to several realizations, I now believe that VR video is on the path to become as immersive and powerful as what we all once thought of as “true VR” (aka virtual 3d environments). Which is why I was thrilled to recently join a VR video tech startup called Pixvana, where we are building a cloud processing and delivery platform for xR (VR+AR) storytelling. I’ve also now created a few 360 videos of my own and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
So, what changed my mind?
Here are 5 reasons why I believe VR video is going to be not only an extremely powerful tool, but essential to mass adoption of virtual reality:
1. Content is king.
We hear this phrase all the time. But what exactly does it mean? Basically, you can create the best technology in the world, but if people can’t find a reason to use it regularly, no one cares. The internet would be nothing if it weren’t the 4.5 billion pages of diverse content that make it up. Smartphones didn’t become become popular until the rise of mobile app content.
Now, in the age of virtual reality, many consumers are confused about how this technology will actually integrate into their everyday lives. The content needs to be something that a) people care about and b) will use daily. Because VR video is easy to deploy to mobile VR headsets like the Gear VR, it is much more likely people will interact with it regularly. In addition, there are many consumers who might not care about playing games but would prefer VR for something that they will use every single day, like watching video. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Not everyone’s a gamer, but almost everyone is a spectator.
When was the last time you met someone who doesn’t play video games daily? Unless you work at Valve or another gaming company, it was probably yesterday. But when was the last time you hung out with someone who doesn’t watch video content daily? Probably when you visited your grandparents. Actually, scratch that. Even my grandparents watch youtube videos like the rest of us, not to mention movies and television.
The point is: almost everyone is already watching videos daily, whether it be Netflix shows, a film in a theater or tutorials on YouTube. Video is something that is immensely integrated into our daily lives already, it’s natural that it will integrate into our lives with VR as well. Yes, there are plenty of game enthusiasts that are thrilled about the development in gaming (who doesn’t love dodging bullets and stabbing zombies in the Vive?), but the majority of consumers aren’t going to suddenly become gamers just because theres a new platform to play on. In order for mass adoption of VR technology to occur, we need to enable people to access content they already care about.
3. We are enabling filmmakers to utilize a completely new medium.
The most exciting thing to me about VR filmmaking, is that it is not just an extension of traditional filmmaking, but an entirely new way of telling stories. As a viewer, you are no longer limited to looking at just one place in the scene. And as a filmmaker, this medium gives you endless opportunities for your creativity to shine by telling a story from a new perspective — one of actually being present in the scene. A VR video, if done right, gives the viewer the feeling that they are simply watching a scene unfold as they would in real life, almost like a fly-on-the-wall. If you haven’t seen Facebook’s 360 video that was released in May, I highly suggest checking it out. Titled Here and Now, [link], this short film takes place in Grand Central Station and captures meaningful moments of several peoples lives. When experienced in true VR (ie: in an Oculus or Gear rather than their monoscopic web-player), you’ll be surprised at how moved you are after hearing and seeing these small conversations between families and friends.
4. The opportunities for education and social impact.
Personally, one of the reasons I am so passionate about the VR space is because it presents a huge opportunity for education and social impact. At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, I had the pleasure of demoing some of the Stanford VR lab’s experiments to a variety of filmmakers and film-lovers alike. One of the experiments we demonstrated involved seeing a virtual representation of yourself in the mirror(as an avatar) change into a different race or gender. Another involved viewing the effects ocean acidification has on sea-life. After trying for themselves, many aspiring VR filmmakers shared with me their desires to create similar experiences in immersive video. I started to imagine all the possibilities VR video has to immerse audiences inside of realities that they would otherwise never see, and as a result, have an impact on their ethics and values.
One of my favorite VR video experiences so far is Nomads by Felix and Paul Studios. Nomads features three short documentaries following the daily lives of several nomadic groups, and can be watched for free from the Oculus store on the Samsung Gear. When watching “Sea Gypsies”, a short from the series, I was immersed into the lives of the Bajau tribe of Southeast-Asia. I experienced a profound moment when I turned to my right and saw a small Bajau child with blonde hair sitting directly next to me on the dock. Even though I had no idea who this little girl was, I felt a strong connection to her. I wanted to reach out and touch her. This moment reaffirmed the widely shared belief that the sense of presence we experience in virtual reality is far more powerful than watching a video on a regular screen. With VR video, countless moments like the one I experienced can be captured and shared with people from all over the world. I strongly believe this will lead to positives such as increased compassion towards humanity and increased environmental education. Plus, who isn’t stoked to one day watch Planet Earth in VR?
5. VR video may not be fully immersive yet, but it will be soon.
Wrapping a monoscopic video around a sphere? I agree, it definitely does not give you the same sense of presence as being inside of a high-quality 3D rendered world.
Most VR video at the moment is soft-looking and fuzzy. Thankfully, brilliant engineers (many of whom I have the pleasure of working with) are finding ways to improve video quality and delivery [link] to create a more life-like resolution with both mono- and stereoscopic content.
And with companies such as Nokia, Jaunt and others building high quality virtual reality cameras, coinciding with the ongoing research of light field capture methods, it’s only a matter of time before we are able to move through pixels of video in three-dimensional space.
And once we’ve achieved that, the possibilities for VR video to transform our world are truly endless.
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