The responsibility of VR content creators in the public domain

A review of the David Attenborough Great Barrier Reef VR Experience

I don’t really consider myself an early adopter of VR — it wasn’t that long ago that I gave VR a try for the first time, and as a designer I immediately became excited at the chance to be involved in creating content in the earliest times of this new medium. I started immersing myself in the world of VR, reading articles and listening to as many of Voices of VR podcasts as I could fill my phone with. When inBeta found out that the David Attenborough Great Barrier Reef VR Exhibit was making its way to Sydney, checking it out was a no-brainer.

Aside from the chance to take an underwater journey through the reef, what I really was most looking forward to seeing was the reaction of first-time VR users. What I left with however, was a feeling of real missed opportunity. Here’s why.

Image courtesy of The Museum of Natural History.

The “VR” Experience

As the experience began, we found ourselves gazing at a 3D rendered scene of the earth oriented towards the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast of Australia. My first observation was what I had feared may be the case — monoscopic 360 degree (2D 360) video. In other words, a flat panoramic image filmed with a single-lens/multi-camera rig and mapped to a sphere, rather than a dual-lens rig that creates the illusion of depth through stereoscopy (S3D 360). For someone who had never experienced the sensation of being totally surrounded by vision, I can understand how it would have sent a tingle down the spine for a brief moment. But for someone who has experienced both 360 video and true cinematic S3D VR on a HMD, there really is no comparison.

It’s understandable why they chose to go with 2D 360— the technical limitations and issues surrounding filming underwater, high hardware costs involved (cinematic VR is still in very early days, so quality equipment is incredibly expensive, particularly for S3D), uncontrollable shooting environment and image stitching issues cause one mighty list of headaches. And admittedly, there are cases where 2D-360 video holds up well against S3D — panoramic environment shots for example. But when you’re exploring underwater, passing over coral and swimming past schools of fish at a close distance, the lack of depth becomes a real dealbreaker.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

As the camera tracked in towards the reef from the aerial shot of the earth I must admit I did begin to feel some sense of immersion — possibly due to the fact that shots from space are so distant that depth isn’t of great concern. That sense of presence was soon broken however, as the scene transitioned into a shot of standard 16x9 footage surrounded by black, suspended in space.

This traditional editing style made the experience feel clunky — cutting between 360 video, to split-screen, to single screen video, back to 360 video and so on really broke flow in the story. The strict linear structure felt confining when presented in a VR headset, where the story should feel natural and exploratory. Rather, the experience seemed tailored to the format of traditional cinema, squeezing itself awkwardly into a VR wrapper and hoping no-one would notice. Ok, so we are still in the early days of VR, and filmmakers are experimenting and adjusting to the realisation that VR really is an entirely different way of thinking about filmmaking — unconfined by the conventional boundaries of the screen and lens.

Nausea + VR — simply add water!

In the next shot, we were back in 360 degree video, travelling on a helicopter over the coastline of the reef. The bumpy, unstabilized camera, and cutting between different shots of different angles, horizon lines and speeds would have really turned some stomachs in the crowd.

After several picture-in-picture cut sequences of the lead-up to going in the submarine, the time had arrived to venture underwater. Two 360 GoPro rigs were used — one being carried on a stick by a diver, and the other was attached to the submarine. Issues with quality immediately became apparent when underwater, with noticeable image compression and distortion.

Inside the sub, the viewer found themselves perched awkwardly on David Attenborough’s knee as he narrated the story like a wise grandfather reading to a youngling. Again, whilst there’s no denying the technical challenges of shooting underwater, once again the shaky movement became nauseating. Also, due to the level of movement and variation in the environment, stitch lines were very obvious and pronounced and created the illusion of fish disappearing and reappearing, which became quite distracting considering the seams were close to the center of screen.

After having also checked out VRSE’s The Click Effect, I have to say I really don’t think the technology is at a level that makes underwater experiences feasible (or at all pleasant anyway) in VR yet. The inability to keep a stable camera underwater creates dissonance between vision and motion leading to simulator sickness — what has been identified as the ‘cardinal rule of VR’, to never take camera control away from the viewer, seems practically impossible currently. Until that problem is addressed, I’ll be steering away from anything water related in VR.

Traditional theaters are designed for traditional viewing

Venue choice plays a major role in the VR user experience. In the comfort of my own home with my GearVR, I have the freedom to sit, stand, lay wherever I want. But the viewer isn’t given that luxury of freedom in a public viewing space and as we discovered, this posed a major problem as the Great Barrier Reef experience was housed in a traditional theater.

Image courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Obviously traditional theaters seats are stationery and positioned tightly together, limiting range of movement and making for an awkward experience when turning around, waving hands about and wanting to look behind you. After all, what good is creating 360 degrees of content if the viewer can’t see it anyway?

In future public VR viewings I would hope to see a more thought out, holistic approach to the VR experience, venue choice no exception. For example, an open warehouse filled with chairs (spaced apart appropriately), such as the innovative VRGO which is kitted out with sensors and orients the viewers position in the virtual world according to the direction the chair is turned.

Ask ‘why?’ Not ‘how’

As VR continues to pick up momentum at lightning speed and attract commercial opportunities for brands, branded content creators have been scrambling to add VR to their bag of tricks. True, it’s great to see that brands are embracing the future and harnessing new technologies like this, but really the question of how a creator or marketer can work VR content into their campaign should always be answered after the why— what benefit will the audience gain from this experience that they otherwise wouldn’t in traditional screen media? The plight of stereoscopic TV and film attest to what happens when the bandwagon well and truly overflows, and when the ‘how’ becomes more important than the ‘why’. Tesco didn’t really care for that, in this creepy, unnecessary VR experience:

The creator as VR ambassador

VR has such potential for creating engaging experiences in so many facets of life, and when done properly can be truly transcendental — from interacting with science and history on a whole new level, to sharing a connection with a Syrian refugee. But the barriers of entry of being able to view this high-end content in the first place mean that a lot of people will have their first VR experience in a public setting such as this Barrier Reef VR Experience. For this reason, its uptake is vulnerable in the fact that it is still an untested ‘try-before-you-buy’ technology that consumers will base their initial interactions on before making the commitment to shell out for their own device.

That is why content creators for public domain in particular have a real responsibility as VR ambassadors. Creators who release their content through online portals such as the Oculus Store or MilkVR call for a lot of pre-meditated action on behalf of the user — owning or having intent of using an HMD, downloading their app, waiting for the content to download (which could be a long time on Australian internet), then finally viewing the content. If the experience is no good, the user can simply delete it and try another one. Public experiences on the other hand don’t have this luxury of being experimental, or cutting any corners — the experience should be planned out and designed for the ‘VR virgin’ every time.

Summing up

So in summary, here are the key lessons that I learnt from the experience that creatives can apply when making content for public domain consumption.

  • Use stereoscopic 3D, or don’t call it VR — there are cases where 2D 360 works, but this isn’t true VR. For a fully immersive experience then depth perception is integral.
  • Choose high quality equipment — for public viewing experiences, high quality equipment is a must (such as Jaunt’s ONE or 360 Design’s EYE).
  • Keep the camera stable, and lock horizon lines — unstable footage is nauseating, if in-camera stabilisation is not possible, try to get the best result out of post-production stabilisation.
  • Guide, not curate — Give the viewer freedom to explore and gently guide them through the experience rather than traditional editing techniques which abruptly breaks immersion.
  • Don’t take control away — Leave the viewer in control of the camera
  • Think about the real world— Choose a physical space that harnesses the power and freedom of VR, rather than encumbering it.
  • Ask ‘why’ before ‘how’ — is VR even the appropriate medium for the experience? Will it add to viewer engagement or detract from it?
  • Wow them — Wow-ing viewers in public VR experiences isn’t just a bonus, it’s a must in these early days — and the longevity and adoption of VR depends on it.

For more in-depth details on best practices for Cinematic VR, I highly recommend checking out this presentation by Patrick Meegan of Jaunt.

So should you go along to the Great Barrier Reef VR experience if it makes its way to your city? If you’re curious, by all means head along - it would make a great field trip for a school and beats watching a video in class any day. It also serves an important public service message by bringing to light the serious issue of the major coral bleaching event that the reef is currently suffering.

But don’t let it be your first VR experience. Before you go, do yourself a favour find a VR headset and check out some quality content from the likes of studios such as Jaunt, Felix & Paul Studios, Oculus Story Studio, The Secret Location and VRSE. These studios have the backing to craft truly immersive cinematic experiences that will leave you craving more, and may even make you rush out to pick up a VR headset of your own.