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Virtual reality is still waiting for its Lumière Moment

A new medium has huge creative potential… But the technical methods of expression are not there yet. Is it 1892 all over again?

When were movies invented? The most common answer is 1895. That year the Lumière brothers, a pair of French inventors, introduced the first motion picture camera using 35mm film (a physical format which remains the standard for non-digital movies) and produced a series of short films. The most famous of the Lumière films is probably “Train Pulling Into Station”, pictured below.

This 50-second silent film of an approaching train is said to have terrified audiences.

Less frequently mentioned is that various movie projection devices had been invented, produced and marketed all throughout the 19th century. Compared to the Lumière breakthrough these inventions may appear little more than historical footnotes, but many of them were popular in their day. In particular, a device called the praxinoscope evolved into an entire movie-like show called Théâtre Optique, which attracted about half a million viewers in Paris. (A drawing of the show is portrayed above in this post’s header, although I took the questionable liberty of adding a VR touch to the image.)

For VR to explode, it will require its own “Lumière Moment” of easy content production. As long as VR content needs to be built manually by highly talented artists, it is not going to become a true mass-market product.

Despite its initial success, the story of Théâtre Optique has a very sad ending. Once the Lumières’ photographic movie camera came out, the previous generation of movies including these painstakingly handcrafted praxinoscope creations was soon forgotten. The show’s inventor and visual director Charles-Émile Reynaud committed suicide by jumping into the Seine — and, in a tremendous loss to art history, he took the only existing copy of Théâtre Optique with him.

When I look at the state of virtual reality (VR) today, I see an industry going through its “praxinoscope stage”. The market is teeming with solutions of highly variable quality that are all fashioned as “VR” by eager marketing departments. The cheapest and most widespread devices are little more than glorified 360-degree Viewmasters that play smartphone videos. Audiences will quickly get bored with that, just as 19th century audiences got bored with cheap and limited motion image projection devices such as the zoetrope.

At the other end of the spectrum, today’s best consumer experiences like the room-scale VR offered by HTC Vive and Oculus Rift+Touch represent a major leap beyond previous state of the art. A total system costs at least $2000, but can be worth it. Wearing the Vive and walking inside a living 3D space is utterly amazing when you get to try it for the first time.

The excitement tends to subdue in a few hours when you realize how little worthwhile content there actually is for the system. The showcase for the setup is Valve’s The Lab, a collection of mini-games and ambient environments. Several of these are extremely impressive… But they are also very small in terms of explorable content, and were produced by one of the world’s leading game studios. Each tiny photo-realistic environment with beautifully animated characters has required a tremendous effort by Valve’s 3D artists and programmers. The budget required to create actual playable content with these production values would be staggering. (Actual games made for the system tend to be visually much more low-key, bordering on cartoonish.)

The Lab’s main interface is an industrial hall filled with portals to other worlds.

Due to its high production cost, The Lab is something of VR’s very own Théâtre Optique. It is an astonishing achievement and an inspiring demonstration of the medium’s possibilities, but it’s not easily reproducable. To build his praxinoscope creations, Charles-Émile Reynaud was forced to invest hundreds of hours in building mechanical systems and painting animation frames… In contrast, the Lumières took their camera, went to a train station and started rolling. After 50 seconds, the film was in the can. This ease of use launched an avalance of creative activity and eventually grew into a industry which today includes everything from marquee $100 million Hollywood productions all the way down to personal Snapchat creations. (Those are movies too, just very ephemeral ones.)

Virtual Reality’s equivalent of “Train Pulling Into Station” will not be a view of a railway station. This is not about developing better 3D cameras.

For VR to explode, it will require its own “Lumière Moment” of easy content production. The Reynaud/Valve creative method simply does not scale into a global business. As long as VR content needs to be built manually by highly talented artists, it is not going to become a true mass-market product.

We’ll recognize the Lumière Moment by three key characteristics:

  • Its creative possibilities will feel new, not just an existing medium transplanted. The Lumières’ movie camera and projector had certain technical aspects of both still photography and motion praxinoscope shows, yet was fundamentally neither. Similarly, VR’s upcoming creative breakthrough might combine technical aspects of gaming and video (two mediums that are currently being transplanted into VR) and turn them into something new.
  • It will be initially limited, but with the ability to voraciously borrow from other arts to feed its creative appetite. Would anyone viewing “Train Pulling Into Station” have predicted “Citizen Kane”? Would 1930s moviegoers have guessed that today’s most popular movies are effects-laden superhero spectacles? Cinema is a vivid art that can absorb elements of theatre, literature, comics and graphic arts and mash them all together into a singular experience. VR’s unique degree of physical presence suggests a similarly flexible creative potential.
  • It will require a technical breakthrough on the acquisition side. Current high-end consumer VR hardware is getting powerful enough. We still can’t do per-pixel raytracing, but enough GPU and CPU power is there to be used cleverly for new visual experiences. The problem is now on the content creation side. Having to master professional 3D tools like Maya and Unreal Engine is an immensely high learning curve to produce VR environments, and 360-degree camera rigs don’t capture the data needed for true VR. Something has to happen here.

One thing is for sure: virtual reality’s equivalent of “Train Pulling Into Station” will not be a view of a railway station. This is not about developing better 3D cameras. The expressive surface needs to be potent enough to dazzle people whose lives are constantly tethered to the Internet. It needs to be a new level of experience. The world needs to feel somehow different afterwards. And it needs to be affordable to produce, at least in its essential form. A very tall order.

In a future post, I’ll look at the candidates and initiatives in this space. If you have any tips or ideas for what I should cover, please drop a comment!

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Pauli Olavi Ojala

Pauli Olavi Ojala

"Say the words" is how the world's oldest surviving book begins. Writing is the original magic. 💮 Video tools @ Facebook. Previously Vidpresso (YC W14), Neonto