Virtual Reality Coming Into View

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Tue, 10/04/2016 - 11:06
Lewis Smithingham (left) and Andrew MacDonald at VIFF 2016

The Vancouver International Film Festival picked a good time to host an industry event on Virtual Reality today. With characteristic fanfare, Google just unveiled a budget VR headset and controller, Daydream View. Daydream is Google’s virtual reality platform, coming next month.

Daydream View, like other VR headsets, is a miniature screening room that is strapped onto your eye sockets. You clip your cell phone into a compartment at the front of the headset, slip it over your head, and peer directly into your phone screen through a pair of viewing lenses. You control the area of view by moving your head left, right, up and down. Daydream View also includes a tiny hand controller which allows the viewer to interact by clicking and motioning.

Google’s main design innovation with the Daydream View appears to have been in its use of cloth material rather than plastics, making the headset both lighter, more comfortable, and arguably stylish - if wearing a box over your eyes can ever be considered a fashion thing.

VR is still pretty new and in spite of the hype the immersive user experience has still got some way to go for it to catch on beyond just VR nerds. At $80, the View and ensuing Daydream headsets may help do that when Daydream goes live next month.

Content also needs to expand for VR to grow and this was a big focal point at VIFF today. Speakers seemed particularly excited by the imminent arrival of the PlayStation 4 VR set which will launch in a week’s time with around 50 or so games.

At the moment, creating VR is a time-consuming and costly business. The cinematic language of VR is still being discovered, which makes it a risky proposition. Asked about budgets, producer Andrew MacDonald suggested there’s a lot of “weird smoke” around costs with many VR producers working many more hours than they budgeted for. But technology is bringing time and costs down, he added.

Some of the VR work on show at VIFF gave a sense of the huge potential and why many filmmakers/content creators are excited about opportunities opening up in VR. The headsets may still feel clunky and uncomfortable, but the the viewing experience is thoroughly different and unique from anything at the conventional cinema.

Watching the National Film Board’s “Cut Off” a VR documentary about Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s visit to a Northern aboriginal community which has no access to clean water, it was fascinating to be able to pan across the village setting as the Canadian leader arrived. Even though the video quality was lacking, you were able to get a more vivid impression of the overall scene than you would get with typical video reportage where the shots would be tightly framed around the Prime Minister and the flow of your attention guided by the all-powerful hand of the editor.

It’s early days for VR. Even a period of a few months can seem like an age ago. MacDonald, producer of Psycho-esque 360 VR short Agnus Die! and Lewis Smithingham, CTO of Doug Liman's new VR production company, 30 Ninjas, shared a few tips on getting the most out of VR, particularly working with narrative VR.

They offered tricks on how to hide “the seam” between stitched shots, and stressed the importance of keeping within the “point of interest” or “cone of action”. Smithingham talked about keeping the viewer in a “comfortable” 180° physical position and if you did force the viewer to twist around to offer “a reward” in the narrative.

As well as all manner of gear, Smithingham talked about the importance of using a compass and logging camera position for consistency when shooting. When rotating your sphere, he said, use a sheet of plexiglass with dry-eraser marker placed over a monitor.

It was also interesting to hear him suggest cuts in narrative VR should be around one every 10 seconds speeding up to 1 every 2 seconds for faster moving, chase scenes or fight scenes. Much like in Hitchcock’s era.

As for how to get into VR filmmaking, you can probably guess the response from both men. “Don’t get too bogged down by the technology,” said MacDonald, “just go out and do it.”