Saturday’s Oculus Connect conference in Hollywood fairly crackled with energy and optimism. In keynotes and panels, scientists, software developers and virtual reality filmmakers talked unabashedly about VR changing the world.
There was a pervasive sense of being on the cusp of something huge, maybe the biggest leap forward in technology since the personal computer.
“We’ve seen some phenomenal paradigm-shifting stories projects come through in our lab program, but I think there is nothing that compares with this next paradigm shift with virtual reality and immersion into the story world.” said Kamal Sinclair, co-director of the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier project, in a panel on VR filmmaking.
Yet there was also agreement that the VR community lacks a firm destination and a roadmap to get there. And those creating content freely admit they are still figuring how VR storytelling will work — and what must to change for it to mature as an art form.
In his morning keynote in the Dolby Theater ballroom, Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe (pictured above) introduced the latest generation of Oculus goggles. Demos on the fragile, hand-made “Crescent Bay” prototypes began shortly afterward. As advertised, the “Crescent Bay” goggles were lighter and more comfortable, offered sharper images and benefit from built-in headphones.
The demo consisted of a series of short vignettes and tableaus, from a tyrannosaur stalking the viewer in a darkened museum to a tour through geometric shapes, like a sci-fi dream. New tracking technology allows the viewer to move around within a roughly 8-foot square, and the image reflects that movement.
Crescent Bay will be the next Oculus developer kit. Over 100,000 developer kits are deployed worldwide already, and this is likely to be the most popular version yet.
Demos were also available for the recently announced Samsung Gear, which turns a Galaxy Note phone into VR goggles. The Gear will be introduced in an “Innovator Edition” for early adopters, as Oculus has distributed its developer kits.
The Gear delivered a good experience when it worked, but this reporter’s was delayed when one Samsung phone crashed when using the touchpad on the Gear, then cut short when another Samsung phone began sending onscreen alerts that it was growing hot.
In a conversation with Variety, Iribe said “I think that one to two versions past these Dev Kit/Innovator Edition versions, you’ll see this hit the consumer market.”
Iribe said that there would only be a consumer rollout when the entire user experience is right. “We are understanding that path to the consumer market much better,” said Iribe, “where before, in the early days, when it was just (developer) kits, we really had no idea how long it would take.
“Now we’re starting to to see the light at the end of the tunnel and have some idea when we can get this to the consumer market, and it’s not that far away,” he said.
A pair of late-day panels hinted at what the future might look like for narrative VR filmmaking, a form that tends to be overshadowed among developers by VR videogames.
While many companies are experimenting with VR shorts (including Variety, which began producing VR event coverage in July), so far VR live-action films are mostly documentary and novelty shorts. It’s not clear today whether feature-length VR experiences will be possible once the tech improves, or whether it will prove inherently uncomfortable to watch VR for more than a few minutes at time.
The consensus among all the panelists seemed to be that whatever story form emerges for VR filmmaking, it will likely bear little resemblance to motion pictures as we now know them, and will be made with different techniques.
Pixar’s Saschka Unseld, director of “The Blue Umbrella,” said comparing today’s filmmaking to VR is like comparing a book to a painting; techniques for one don’t apply to the other. “It’s a very different thing,” he said. “In a painting, if you try to do writing, that’s not what painting is about.”
In an earlier panel on 360-degree filmmaking, audience questions wondered how to guide the audience’s attention without the cinematic tools of focus, framing and editing. The conversation turned to live theater techniques like lighting and sound, and then to more ancient art forms, including ritual dances
“There’s a huge movement toward a return to ritual, a return to those kinds of experiences that were immersive, participatory, social, and quite frankly gave you out-of-body experiences,” said Sinclair.
Director Chris Milk observed that VR directors must give up the control they’re accustomed to in cinema. “What we’re doing is sort of world building and choreography around the viewer,” said Milk. But Paul Raphael of Felix and Paul Studio said VR brings new opportunities, too. “Playing with the tension between two points of interest… that’s a new thing you can play with (in VR).”
Others noted that editing is a way of compressing time and cutting out the boring parts, but that it seems that editing is anathema to the sense of “presence” that is the entire goal of VR. So storytellers may have to grapple with gaps in the action that can’t be trimmed out.
In Sinclair’s 360-degree filmmaking panel, Ikrima Elhassan, co-founder of Kite & Lightning, said he’d chosen to work with live-action VR because he wants to tell stories with people in them. The only way to put photo-realistic humans into a VR film, he said, is to photograph them, since CG humans are not yet a convincing replacement for actors even in feature films, and their flaws are more pronounced in VR.
Milk speculated that acting itself will evolve for VR, and become more subtle, just as film acting became more subtle than stage acting. He also wondered if the intimacy of VR would make famous faces a problem for the new medium.
“A very famous actor on a movie screen resonates differently than that actor sitting in front of you,” he said. He concluded the panel saying “To make a movie now, you need a few movie stars, and they have to have foreign value. What if VR completely flips the star system on its head, and you can’t have anybody famous?”
The notion drew loud applause from the audience.