The boy who cried VR!
I came, I saw, I was conquered
Quick one, before I go to bed — it’s 4am, and I’m tired as fuck. I want to thank the relevant gods that I was able to keep my mouth closed when Mohini took this shot. Yes, it’s an actual thing. Doesn’t it bother you that photos of people using Virtual Reality headsets (almost) always feature them with their mouths wide open? Okay, seriously. I had my first (quasi-) VR experience this week. It was a showcase organised by a nascent VR creation lab/community over here in Lagos called Imisi3D. The experience reminded me of something I read that rings truer now, than ever before.
“You can divide the world into two: people who believe Virtual (and Augmented) Reality will play a part in our future as a (combination of) race(s), and people who haven’t had a demo yet.”
Or something like that — I forget. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Tola and I walked onto CcHub’s famous #6thfloor on Tuesday afternoon. For months, I’d been playing the devil’s advocate — arguing in the Twitter Tech Salon (a close-knit, geek-filled Twitter DM group I belong to) that despite the tech media wankfest, there was no way to tell whether or not Virtual Reality was “the future”. And that Apple is in no immediate danger because they have refused to join in the pissing contest. So far.
My argument is/was based on the fact that it’s not the first time everyone’s lost their minds over relatively nascent tech that’s ended up as little more than gum on the tech industry’s figurative shoes. 3D TVs anyone? How about Google Glass? Amazon Fire phone? Holograms nko? But something happened the second Judith showed everyone the Gear VR controls and helped me put one on as her first volunteer. I’d done the research, I’d paid my dues, I know how it all works in theory — but I was in such awe that I had to fight to keep my mouth shut. Again, thanks be to the pertinent gods.
I was taken from my seat to a great many places without having to leave the one I was in. Better: I felt like a little baby born into a strange world for the first time, trying to make sense of [the disconnect between] my [visual, auditory and somatosensory] senses. I wasn’t swivelling in the chair, mouthing oohs and aahs on account of what I was seeing, no. It’s a terribly limited experience made worse by our Nigerian (snail-speed) internet service provider(s). My brain was whirring along at as many teraflops as I could manage because in that moment, I thought myself a micro-Iron Man. The possibilities, man. THE POSSIBILITIES. THE FUCKING POSSIBILI-
“You’ve got 10 seconds left, Osarumen”
Ugh. I’d swum so deep in my own thoughts about the future applications of VR tech that until Judith reminded me, I forgot I was holding everyone else up. Enthusiasts — many of them smarter than me — with much better ideas.
From that point on, I was at the showcase in the flesh, and in the flesh alone. Conversations with otherwise interesting people were relegated to the background as I soaked in what I’d just experienced. I suddenly understood all the ballyhoo, why Femi, Femi, Marvin and Banky were so convinced that “the future” looked a lot like the image above. I’ve had a few days to think, and here’s why I still don’t agree completely with their points-of-view.
The Uncertainty Of The Future
Generally speaking, the human race has never been able to see beyond its own nostrils (except in a negligible number of cases like Steve Jobs’). That’s because incremental thinking has our brains by the balls. We often only look at what’s obvious, what’s right in front of us and try to take it to its logical conclusion(s). The problem is, the future is typically not made of extensions of existing ideas, but of violent clashes between them.
So, if you’d asked people in 1800 what the future of transportation looked like to them, they’d have been thinking along the lines of training horses to run faster and building sturdier, more beautiful carriages. Fast forward just 100 years, and the masses moved around primarily via Electric trolleys (trams). Another 20 years, after Henry Ford (with the Model T) helped to democratise the automobile and there were 8 million cars in the USA.
In the same vein, if you’d asked many people 10–15 years ago how tech was going to permeate the living room, they’d have told you “better TVs”, “better game consoles” etc. when the correct answer would have been smartphones + mobile internet. Consoles are definitely part of the future, but they just do not have the scale mobile smartphones have amassed in the last 9 years.
VR is still too optional, for too many people, to be referred to as “the future”.
And that’s my point. All the Moore’s law in the world cannot nullify the fact that the amount or processing power you need for any VR (even 360-degree videos) is out of the reach of MOST of the world. Cheap projects like Gear VR, Google Cardboard (which use mobile smartphone displays, CPUs, GPUs, accelerometers and gyroscopes) try to cater to the lower end of the spectrum, but VR is still too optional, for too many people, to be referred to as “the future”. Idk.
So, showing me a VR demo right now, is akin to going back in time to 2002 and showing someone an Xbox One console. They’d get super-excited about it and term it “futuristic”, but it does not paint a wholesome picture of what the future (today) looks like.
Content Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink
VR’s in a catch-22. One side of the problem is that expensive VR gear will not go mainstream without the content created for it being [good] enough to satisfy the masses. The other side is that most content developers will not put in the effort required to create great shit without the assurance that people will actually consume any of it. It’s Windows phone all over again.
Part of the problem is we have not yet developed a unified “language” for VR storytelling. What we‘ve got instead, is a lot of repurposing, repackaging, and Brownian motion. Let me unpack that. When faced with a completely new content delivery format, most creators will react by trying to copy, repurpose and paste tricks from the formats they are more familiar with.
“No one has even come close to mastering the medium, but it’s clear that holding on to the traditional rules of storytelling is a surefire way to make disappointing VR.”
Example. The earliest “films” were only bits of theatre performances caught on tape. Before long, people figured out you could move your camera to change perspective, you could record audio, you could zoom, you could pan, and even cut your film so you’re in control of the timing of each scene. Cinematic “language” as we know it was being written in bits and pieces. Each generation of filmmakers took the work of the previous, picked the parts they wanted to keep, and took them a step further. Repeat till infinity.
Another (from a conversation I once had with Seyi Taylor), is that as “TV” as an experience is moving online, some creators still create videos that pander to the traditional TV paradigm and then come dump them online. At the same time, another set of people (think Instagram, Vine, Snapchat creators) are experimenting with online social platforms, navigating their constraints and are only just discovering HOW to make video for the mobile web.
P.S. That was what killed 3D TVs. Most of the content available for the medium back then [was normal movies that’d been converted to 3D and so the experience] wasn’t great enough to justify the expensive hardware purchase.
I’ve been playing around with the Ricoh Theta S, one of the more popular 360-degree cameras on the market. Since Jeremy Kirshbaum from the Institute For The Future gave it to us, one of my favourite things to watch has been the look on people’s faces when I walk into a room holding up this weird thing with fish-eye lenses and blinking lights. Even better: the look on their faces when I show them the captured images.
Using the Theta S — and some of my grey matter— has given me a little insight into some of the kinds of questions VR filmmakers (can we really call it film?) will have to answer, and challenges they will have to surmount to get the party started. It is by no means an extensive list.
- A lot of Filmmaking today is built on the premise that the director controls WHAT the audience experiences, WHEN they experience it, and HOW they experience it. Are you going to place the audience in the world you’ve created as a character everyone ignores completely (like Bran, when he travels to the past in Game of Thrones)? How do you direct their attention when all they have to do is look away from [what you determine to be] “the action” to ruin the experience? Big neon arrows?
- How do you perform stunts and use harnesses when the audience can see in 360-degrees? Where do you (and your crew) hide in the space as soon as the cameras start rolling? Do you even have to hide or will VR content creation be more…autobiographic than we’re used to?
- How do you alter perspective? Do you place multiple 360-degree cameras at key points in the room? How do you prevent each one from capturing the other? WHAT DOES THAT DO TO EDITING? How do you edit all this footage so that it makes sense and you’re not ripping a hole in space-time because you forgot something?
- Are you going to create multiple storylines such that the audience is free to move as they want and experience whichever but somehow arrive at the conclusion we want them to? How much complexity does that introduce to storytelling? How does one compose music for multiple experiences? Even if you compose multiple scores, how do you switch between them when a user takes a pivotal decision in the middle of an important moment? Crossfading? Sidenote: I suppose an MVP of this last point is video games and like Ben Evans once noted, those (porn) DVD videos with decision trees and a TON of recorded footage. Side-sidenote: Has anyone noticed how much innovation in film has come as a result of porn directors wanting to create more immersive experiences for their audience?
- If you take this to its logical conclusion, then should audiences be allowed to experience the film (for lack of a better term) from the points of view of whichever of the characters they choose per time? For one, that will force screenplay writers/directors to write more 3-dimensional characters. No more White saviour, Black thug, Asian genius stereotypes. Hallelujah.
- If we allow for this level of interactivity, what’s the difference between VR film and VR gaming? Is the audience no longer just an audience, but a co-creator? Or will VR “storyscapes” become a whole ‘nother form of entertainment separate from whatever the respective future(s) of film and gaming are?
- How does this interface with live sports broadcasting? Will we be able to experience games from the points of view of each of the players on a soccer field? P.S. This will mean changing the gear of each sport and even its rules. WATTBA.
If I had good answers to these questions (and the many I haven’t thought up yet), I’d quit my job (sorry, guys) and go start that VR content creation startup I was obviously born to start. I have at least one investor on board already. But I don’t, so meh. This is where the Imisi3D community comes in, why I find it really interesting.
Judith’s thesis (from our conversation) is that because VR as a content format is still in its early days, there’s a window for Africa(ns) to get ahead of the curve and help define what it is and what it will become in the future. To stop being constant consumers and become creators, instead. To stop being lookers-on, as the world rouses & pulls itself into another revolution. To stop sitting on our hands and go build something for a bloody change.
As you can see, everything’s a bit fuzzy right now, and nobody knows what Virtual Reality will become and how big a part it will play in “the future”. What I know though, is that that demo (and the thoughts that have crossed my mind since then) was one of the more exciting things I’ve ever done, and I want to do it again, and give other people opportunities to do it.
So, I’ve decided to throw myself in head first, give it a few hours every week — learn about where VR was, where it is now, and hopefully help chart its course in the future. If you’re thinking along the same lines, or if you have ideas and you’re unsure how to get started, hit me up.
Cheers to more open minds and open mouths. 🍷