First Light Field Footage Shows Potential, Pitfalls of Roomscale Cinematic Virtual Reality

Lytro Immerge
Courtesy of Lytro

One of the promises of virtual reality (VR) is that it will one day allow viewers to step into a movie. New demo footage from virtual reality camera maker Lytro shows that it will take some more time, and technical advancements, before Hollywood can make good on that promise.

Lytro officially unveiled a 30-second clip Tuesday that has been shot with its new light field virtual reality camera. The clip is a cheeky take on the classic conspiracy theory that NASA faked the moon landing, showing viewers an astronaut that’s presumably Neil Armstrong taking that historic first step — only to be told by a whole film crew lurking in the shadows that there would be another take.

Lytro is using the footage to show Hollywood studios, VR startups and other potential customers what its camera is capable of. The company officially introduced the camera system, which is being called Immerge, last November, and has touted it as a massive step forward for recording cinematic VR experiences.

Lytro uses light field technology, which means that it records all the light within a certain space as it bounces around in all directions. This allows the viewer to look around in that space just like one would in a real-world 3D environment, complete with the ability to look behind objects, and see the light and reflection change depending on one’s vantage point.

That’s a big deal for cinematic VR, especially when it comes to higher-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Animated VR experiences have long allowed users of those headsets to move through the space of an experience, and visual effects folks have had some success combining 3D video with game engine animations to make experiences more immersive.

But when it comes to cinematic content, VR video still delegates the viewer to be a spectator. One can look around and see the action play out on a 360-degree canvas, but not really break the wall and step into the scene.

Light field affords that option — in theory, anyways. The 30-second clip that Lytro started to show this week still requires users to watch from a distance, seated, and not move their head too much to the side.

That makes the whole experience a bit underwhelming, at least for a layman’s eye. Sure, there are notable improvements over regular VR videos. One can, for example, move one’s head sideways or back and forth, and actually see the visual world correspond to that head movement. And when the astronaut steps closer, moving one’s head results in different reflections in his helmet’s visor. But sitting on a chair, and slightly swaying one’s head, still doesn’t exactly feel like stepping into a movie.

Lytro VP of engineering Tim Milliron told Variety during a recent demo that these constraints were largely due to the current camera configuration, which is based on 300 individual lenses, and is capable of capturing a space of up to five by five feet.

Recording an entire room with light field cameras will be a lot more complex. Still, Milliron seemed confident that it can be done, and said that Lytro may be able to pull it off as early as next year.

In a way, the current, more subtle nature of light field VR video capture technology might actually be one of its strengths. As viewers still get used to VR, light field can help to make videos feel more realistic without being gimmicky.

In other words: It’s not 3D theater all over again. Instead, it’s a tool that can make the best of VR storytelling more immersive — even if we’re not quite ready to literally step into the story.

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  1. Brian-haver says:

    Jesus there’s a lot of negativity here. Cinematic VR is amazing, and this is easily the coolest technology on the planet in the creative realm. Why all the hate?

  2. Rex says:

    Still can’t believe people think this will be better than slipping on a pair of simple sunglasses to watch a 3D movie. Or just watching ANY movie projected on a screen. If it ain’t broke, don’t make me wear a silly BOX ON MY HEAD so someone can piss in my root beer or steal from my girlfriend’s purse while we’re getting all “immersed” . . .

  3. Rex says:

    Yeah, don’t move your head to much to the side, BECAUSE YOU’LL PUKE!

  4. Dunstan says:

    Why would anyone want to insert themselves into a movie? A writer or writers has crafted something for a specific group of characters to take specific actions within the screenplay. This seems like a solution in search of a problem.

    What a waste.

    I recently took part in a VR “focus group” and it was truly laughable.

    • ChannelJohn says:

      I would LOVE to insert myself into a movie and have been dreaming of exactly that since I was a little kid reading sci-fi, watching Picard in the holodeck of the Enterprise on Star Trek, etc. It’s the difference between passive entertainment — in which you sit and zone out while you watch other people have an experience that has nothing to do with you and requires nothing from you — and active entertainment where you are the protagonist navigating the story/world/whatever and that story revolves around you and your actions and decisions.

      Of course, I’m a gamer, so I’ve always preferred being an active participant in my entertainment rather than just zoning out in front of a tv or movie screen. You sound like you aren’t, and like you’re one of those people for whom tv and movies are simply an escape and an opportunity for you to turn off your brain for a little while. Unlike you, I respect that there are different kinds of people in the world and one choice is no more “a waste” than the other… but, if you want to go there, I personally consider sitting passively in front of entertainment that requires NOTHING from you to be much more of a waste than actively taking part in it.

      And of course the “VR ‘focus group'” was “laughable” to you, because you obviously are the wrong audience for active entertainment. For those of us who own VR headsets and use them regularly (and not just for games or movies, btw, but for work as well using some pretty awesome tools that have been released in the past year), it’s awesome and makes the old way seem… well, old. And a little archaic. Seriously, after watching 3D surround movies on a giant screen and running through virtual game worlds where I’m the hero, watching regular tv and movies on a regular screen and playing regular games on a regular monitor has started to seem, to me, a little like using a rotary telephone or trying to tune in one of 13 available channels on a cathode ray tube television by adjusting the bunny ear antenna. This is why I hope VR really gains traction and catches on this time, because I, personally, would find it very difficult to go back to solely using the old tech.

      • Rex says:

        Oh, and by the way, the entertainment that people “sit passively in front of” requires an emotional investment that you apparently can’t muster because it’s not a gimmick you can play with. I love how millenial gamer types think that because THEY can’t sit through a movie without going through some kind of withdrawal symptoms that somehow VR is the answer to 100+ years of cinema apparently asking NOTHING of its audiences.

        Enjoy the box on your head.

      • Rex says:

        Don’t worry, I’m sure the porn producers will figure out a way to utilize this for you, before everyone bores of it and goes back to watching movies the way we have for over a hundred years. ;)

    • It’s not a “solution in search of a problem” People are still thinking of this as improved 3D, but VR is a completely different medium. One that requires the artists including producers, directors, and writers to rethink how a story would work if the viewer was actually present. In fact, VR highlights what a powerful tool having had the 2D frame has been for storytelling: allowing the artist to direct the audience’s attention and economize the elements of the story. Imagine a scene in which a husband and wife are arguing in their home, standard in countless screen and stage dramas. In VR you yourself would be in the kitchen (or on the stage). You wouldn’t know to look at the wife’s face to see if she was lying, or the husband’s body language at a certain moment. Even more, you’d feel awkward–like a ghost watching them. What’s more all those cuts in time and place that are de rigueur in film are jarring and potentially nauseating in VR.

      So what then do you gain? VR provides an incredible sense of presence. Along with that is the potential for agency: in this way an audience’s experience of VR might map closer to that of a player in a first-person video game, or sharing an escape room with friends, or murder mystery theatre. So the types of experiences and stories you can tell are fundamentally different, which is why these early attempts to translate standard 2D storytelling in VR probably appear laughable.

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