It was often said that the heyday of virtual reality was in the early 90s. Back then, developers were building virtual reality games and worlds, and consumers were eager for the dream of VR. Unfortunately, the technology wasn’t good enough to provide a good experience, and the boom crashed and burned, turning the power glove and the Virtual Boy into industry jokes.
Building a compelling VR headset is a huge challenge, and without good hardware, content developers were severely hamstrung. Headsets had low resolutions, high latency, and were uncomfortable to wear for long periods, due to the sheer weight of them. The Nintendo Virtual Boy, for example, weighed 750 grams, and couldn’t display color. By the mid-90s, it was clear VR was merely a passing fad.
Or was it? Twenty years later, VR is having a renaissance, and finally it seems like the technology has caught up with the ambitions of the users and developers.
Google, Samsung and Facebook (via Oculus Rift, which they acquired in 2014 for $2 billion) are in the process of releasing their own VR ecosystems, and game and film studios are flocking back to it. Among them Disney, who recently invested $66 million USD in VR startup Jaunt VR.
What is Jaunt VR?
Based in Palo Alto, California, Jaunt VR aren’t the most recognizable or well-known name in VR tech.
But that’s unfortunate, because despite their relative obscurity, this fledgling startup has produced an incredible suite of motion-capture technology that promises to make it tantalizingly simple to capture 360 degree video. For once, VR films and interactive fiction (which itself is having its own Lazarus-esque rebirth) is in reach.
Jaunt’s flagship product is the Neo, which is marketed as the world’s first professional-oriented camera built exclusively with virtual-reality content in mind.
The camera itself is no slouch. It can capture rich, high-resolution 360 degree images and videos. It can produce high dynamic range (HDR) content, and even record high-frame rate video. This means the Neo is capable of producing those slow-motion shots you’ve become accustomed to ever since the first Matrix film. Appropriate, given the camera shares the same name as that film’s protagonist.
The Jaunt’s most compelling unique selling point is the ease in which it can be used. It wants to do for VR what the point-and-shoot camera did for photography, essentially. Just prop it up, hit record, and that’s it.
Accompanying the camera is a custom suite of editing software, designed for stitching together footage from multiple perspectives into one coherent video experience which can then be explored through head movement.
The Neo replaces the first Jaunt VR camera, which was essentially a bunch of GoPros that were inelegantly cobbled together with a custom-built frame, and marks an increasing maturity in professional-grade VR camera equipment.
Jaunt’s camera isn’t alone, however. In the past we’ve seen a number of manufacturers jump feet-first into the VR camera business.
One of the most exciting of which is being built by Nokia – or, at least the remnants of Nokia after Microsoft purchased their phone business. Ozo was announced in July later this year, and consists of eight high-definition microphones and cameras consolidated into a cantaloupe-sized rig.
Like Jaunt VR’s Neo, this aims to be a professional-standard piece of kit, aimed more at high-budget filmmakers than amateurs.
Joining them is GoPro, Google and Samsung, each of which want to build the next big filmmaking platform for the nascent virtual reality paradigm.
Google’s offering is the most exciting. Dubbed “Jump”, it consists of 16 cameras arranged in a circular array. The accompanying software can stitch these 16 inputs into a singular piece of 3D, stereoscopic video.
As you might expect, as the technology required to produce and consume VR content has matured, there has been a surge of new VR content to watch.
The Rise of VR Filmmaking
People have been dreaming about virtual reality entering the world of cinematography for a really long time.
One of the earliest examples was, strangely enough, featured in a 1993 episode of Murder She Wrote called A Virtual Murder. This episode, of course, dealt with a murder in some sedate New England Town. But it also featured a subplot where Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) wrote a murder-mystery virtual reality film for a technology startup.
But this episode of Murder She Wrote was very much ahead of its time. It paints a picture of an immersive, interactive storytelling experience which is only now becoming feasible. A Virtual Murder is even more remarkable when you consider that hardly any video content was being produced with VR back then. This episode was speculating on the direction VR tech would take, and how it would eventually change how we see filmmaking.
Recently though, as the pace of improvement in VR technology has accelerated, we’ve seen a lot more people create ambitious, virtual reality films, like that imagined in A Virtual Murder.
Earlier this year, we saw the release of MansLaughter – a dystopic, feature length sci-fi movie directed by indie wunderkind David Marlett. It also gets to boast that it’s the first feature-length virtual reality film. Ever.
MansLaughter borrows elements from the choose-your-own-adverture games you undoubtedly played when you were younger, as well as aesthetic stylings from George Lucas’s THX 1148, according to an interview with David Marlett in Fast Company magazine. Interestingly, Manslaughter was made for the GearVR, the mobile version of the Oculus Rift, and was distributed through the MilkVR digital marketplace.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen people produce shorter, but equally intriguing short films shot entirely in VR. Zero Point is a 20 minute long exploration of the history and technology behind the Oculus Rift. Appropriately, it can also be viewed with the Oculus Rift, and downloaded from the Steam store for $4.99.
Virtual Reality technology is also being used to enhance traditional broadcast journalism in a way that adds an extra depth and substance to reporting. One of the most intriguing examples was produced by ABC using the latest Jaunt VR camera rig, in order to explain the history of Damascus, and the ongoing threats posed to its archeological treasures from the Syrian Civil War.
Not using Jaunt’s equipment, but equally fascinating was RYOT’s exploration of the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake, which was narrated by Hollywood starlet Susan Sarandon. This powerful short documentary took viewers on a tour of the devastated mountain kingdom, which they could explore by moving their heads.
People are very much making VR films. The quality of these experiences can be astounding, and they’re being produced in ever-increasing numbers. There are even rumors that the big studios are experimenting with it. But I wouldn’t get too excited just yet.
There’s Still A Long Way To Go
I’d love to watch a big-budget blockbuster on an Oculus Rift. I’d love to tilt my head, and pan through the bridge of the USS Enterprise. I’d love to experience what it was like to storm the beaches of Normandy, or pilot a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, all without leaving the comfort of my own home. But I know that there’s still a lot of ground to cover before that becomes a reality.
The camera equipment is only just coming into fruition. Although Jaunt VR’s camera equipment is impressive, there are no plans of yet to put it into mass-production. Rather, they intend to produce a small number, and lease them out to filmmakers as required. Although, with the millions of dollars Disney recently dumped into the company, who knows what might happen?
Then there are the added costs of producing films with 360 degrees of footage, rather than simply one camera perspective. No matter how you look at it, there are going to be added production costs. There’s also the point that 360 films are just the start. 360 lets you look around, but it doesn’t provide depth, or the ability to move your head. To provide a true VR movie experience, the hardware will have to advance even further.
It’s also worth noting that VR is still very much a niche concept. Hardly anyone owns headsets. You shouldn’t expect studios to release much VR content until they finally penetrate the mainstream consciousness.
Would You Watch VR Films?
VR has a bit more maturing to do. But the viewing and recording technology is rapidly advancing. Who knows what the future might look like?
Are you excited about the premise of VR films? Would you watch a film entirely in VR? I want to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below.