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

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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