Actually, the blog article for today, Tuesday, was originally supposed to be about film director and photographer Anton Corbijn. About how the excellent artist manages to create such high quality feature films as a director working with various cameramen and women. About how without even batting an eyelid Corbijn’s imagery refutes the reality that situations are not a story.
But given current developments the Dutchmen will have to be put to one side. Last week, a key event organiser invited the Swiss communications scene to a presentation on the trendy topic of virtual reality (VR). The sobering reality: the event was in actual fact not dedicated to the VR trend but rather to the event organiser’s own advertising fantasy. But clued up people know that there is a fig tree behind every fig leaf. So that the tree can put down the roots it so deserves, this is intended to offer a basic outline of VR. A pair of cardboard glasses is a gag for trend setters, but not an introduction into a complex subject which for marketing and communication with film and video also has the potential of becoming much more than just an insider trend.
Three obstacles on the path to becoming a mega trend
At the current level of research and knowledge, virtual reality has to master three major challenges before it can become a mega trend. Like all big challenges, these three obstacles may at first glance seem banal. The developers of Oculus and other leading innovators in the VR sector see that differently. They are fighting with the following challenges:
As the name suggests, virtual reality is supposed to convey reality. For humans, who in most cases have two eyes in their head, reality means seeing life three dimensionally. 3-D films have been in cinemas and theme parks since the seventies. But astonishingly the technology has still not made the breakthrough into all walks of life. If VR wants to establish itself in the global masses, it must finally and convincingly solve this problem.
If people move their head, their point of view and perspective change. If we move our bodies, centrifugal and gravitational forces complement this information in real time. This sophisticated sensorium of information from our nerve cells is one of the greatest challenges for VR. Even the smallest differences between impulses from head movement and not one hundred percent synchronised impulses from the optical nerve can cause enormous physical irritations. Oculus claims to have reduced this delay for buyers and wearers of their VR glasses to a few milliseconds and thus to an acceptable amount. But the question as to how to deal with a glasses-wearer sat on a chair experiencing a virtual roller-coaster ride remains largely unsolved. The body is stable and static, while the optical cells and in turn head movements are signalling the exact opposite to the brain. Research soberly refers to this result with the illustrative generic term cybersickness. Cybersickness is what happens when people embark on a virtual adventure and are unexpectedly confronted with their half-digested breakfast or lunch in reality. Cynical people could presume that to be the reason why manufacturers of VR technology are currently not publishing any exact results from studies that they have commissioned to be carried out with test persons.
Humans are infinite. Space is infinite. Virtual reality must obey this law. It can learn a lot from the gaming industry in that regard, because gamers interactively move through seemingly endless worlds of experience. Because no sensible game studio can portray the whole world in all its variety and for economic reasons does not want to, subtle tricks are used to reduce the spatial options. VR will benefit from that. Tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow. For now it is a question of biding time.
Content and technology go hand in hand. In storytelling too. That is particularly true for virtual reality. Classic games cannot be successfully adapted to VR, not just because of cybersickness. That is why the VR industry has called on the game industry to develop content that respects the three laws for VR (3-D, motion and spatial dimensions) and also fulfils a whole host of other specifications. The most important of them are:
Like in interactive games, traditional film vocabulary cannot be applied in the virtual realm. There are no cuts, no sudden room changes, close-ups or totals in reality. Theatrical rules are thus more applicable than classical Hollywood cinema techniques for leading viewers.
Banal, but difficult to implement. How and where do we enter or exit VR adequately? How can the major “signposts” be placed in the virtual space without interfering? How can the virtual journey be paused, saved, continued or enriched with additional information? So far there have been examples but no norms or standards that would likely be accepted by a broad public.
Henry the hedgehog
Henry the hedgehog should actually be included in the previous category, storytelling. But the story of Henry is so interesting that it deserves its own section here. As is well known, Oculus was bought by Facebook. So it was time to think outside the box and see whether it might not be possible to use VR to substitute classic cinema and TV with a much more vivid experience. That is why a creative mind from Disney’s leading animation film factory Pixar was recruited. He was given the job of developing and producing a film especially for VR. And so Henry the hedgehog was born. Henry has spines. And thus no friends. Saschka Unseld, the head animator for the film, said the following about what he learnt from the process: “Lots of scenes looked fun in the storyboard but in the virtual sphere they had an overbearing effect on the viewer.”
Viewers apparently felt a much greater closeness to Henry the hedgehog in the virtual space than the film makers anticipated. They not only laughed about Henry’s fate, but also felt sympathy with him. Unseld therefore left a number of planned scenes out of the final film in the end.
Reality is, everybody is still waiting for the killer application
Audiences, investors and industry are still waiting for a major application that will make VR indispensable all over the world and not just for trend-spotters. As always with the film and video medium, the porn industry is again trying to be the secret pioneer, but in the case of VR less out of enthusiasm for the new possibilities and more driven by the financial necessity to once again tap into new sources of income.
Big money can already be made with VR today. But neither with technology nor content. Rather with glasses made of cheap cardboard, which with just a few folds can be used to balance your VR app-equipped iPhone on your nose. Since the New York Times sent out 1.6 million (!) to their subscribers and at the same time produced VR videos from the American presidential election battle, these cheap glasses have been trending internationally. The cardboard masks are available, depending on quantity, for between 12 and 19 Dollars, often printed with various sponsors’ logos. The high-tech VR glasses from Oculus cross the counter for 700 USD. The profit margin has not been disclosed. In the case of cardboard glasses, experts estimate the difference between manufacturing costs and sale price to be a whole 400%.
If you want to move through a virtual reality: It’s called a video game, it’s been around forever. James Cameron, Director
Yes, VR is a hot topic. And yes, VR will come. Today we still need clumpy glasses to consume virtual reality. Tomorrow it will be contact lenses. The day after tomorrow, the industry will be able to generate moving images, and not just images, right in the viewer’s brain using electromagnetic stimulations and thus not only extend this escapism into unknown dimensions.
Given that, the plans of giants such as Facebook and Google for VR seem suspiciously unspectacular. In an interview with Spiegel, Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus Rift, said that he and Zuckerberg believe the mass market for virtual reality lies in the ability to move people into virtual spaces together. Facebook paid two billion to buy Oculus. The giant is putting its money on virtual reality being the technology of the future. With VR, they are planning to unleash nothing more and nothing less than a revolution in the way people communicate with each other in the future.
Background information: As part of a major international project by Condor Films AG starting in 1999, the author of this article spent two years exclusively studying 360° films and videos, virtual reality and the associated opportunities and risks for visual entertainment. The producer and gamer continues to follow the subject with just as much interest and passion.