So far, the rise of virtual reality (VR) has been driven by video games. Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive, made in partnership with Valve, are built by gaming companies. Palmer Luckey built the first Oculus Rift for gaming (and recently partnered with Xbox). But in 2016, as VR headsets become available to consumers — starting with Oculus in Q1 — other forms of entertainment will begin to break through. The most significant: film (no, not the adult kind). Not everyone plays games, but many go to the cinema and a majority watch TV. If VR is to reach mass adoption, it will be filmed content, rather than gaming, that fuels it.
Hollywood has been slowly catching on to the potential of VR. Major studios, from Fox to Paramount, have experimented with the form through tie-ins to established franchises, from Interstellar to Game of Thrones. So far, few have been more than stunts. But with VR headset sales predicted to hit 12.2 million in 2016, according to investment bank Piper Jaffray, the industry is now taking it seriously. Head to major film festivals such as Sundance or Tribeca and you’ll see scores of executives donning headsets to watch innovative, high-quality content being produced by indie filmmakers. VR tech companies have recognised the importance of video: in January 2015, Oculus launched its Story Studio, helmed by a former Pixar director, to produce film content for the platform.
“Film is an antiquated term. We call them ‘experiences’,” says Chris Milk, founder of LA-based VR production company VRSE.works. An artist and film-maker, Milk was an early innovator in VR cinema, having produced an acclaimed music video for Beck’s “Sound and Vision”. Taken by the form, he founded VRSE.works, which produces VR content for companies including Vice and NBC. A typical VRSE.works film is a thrilling experience: take Walking New York, a nine-minute documentary produced for The New York Times about the French street artist JR. The short opens with the viewer sat face-to-face with the artist in his studio; as JR speaks, the viewer is free to gaze around at his work littering the space. Later, you experience a 360° time-lapse shot from the centre of Times Square, as if reality is warped and distorted.
At its best, film-making for virtual reality is a giddying experience: in another of Milk’s films, Evolution of Verse, the viewer is approached by an onrushing train. Watch someone viewing the scene for the first time to demonstrate the power of virtual reality: some flinch, others yell. (The fear is unfounded; at the moment of impact, the train explodes into a dazzling shower of birds.)
“You can’t make somebody’s stomach spin with a traditional film,” Milk says. “We’re really playing with it. We’re using how it makes you feel physically to tie in with how you feel about a character.”
Film-makers are also coming to terms with VR’s early limitations — for example, the frequent problem of content inducing motion sickness. “Your vestibular system registers acceleration and deceleration, but it doesn’t tell you when you’re already moving, which is why you can sit on an aeroplane and feel fine,” says Milk. As such, VRSE.works’ films now use steady, slow tracking shots, rather than the jerky cuts typical of cinema blockbusters.
Such physical experiences are profoundly different to traditional cinema — and exciting for film-makers.
“You can imagine a horror movie, for example, being a very powerful experience,” says Jens Christensen, co-founder of VR startup Jaunt, which produces camera systems for VR and partners with film studios to produce content. “Nature is a great example — feeling transported to a dangerous environment where you wouldn’t normally want to be, but the camera can be there, so you get up close and personal.”
VR cinema will only reach its potential if the medium can attract the quality of storytellers that cinema does. As such, VRSE.works has partnered with Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison, producer of Oscar-nominated films from Zero Dark Thirty to American Hustle, to create VRSE.farm, a lab that will help both established storytellers and first-time directors create content in the form. (Among the creatives involved is director Spike Jonze.)
“We’re having conversations with very notable film-makers, teaching them what we’ve learned,” Milk says.
The physical challenges of shooting for virtual reality also present a set of previously unknown challenges: you can’t have a traditional set when you can see in 360°. “It’s learning things like, you can’t have a dolly track underneath you in a VR shot, because you can look down,” Milk says. Although early VR films were typically shot using cubes of GoPros, startups such as Jaunt now sell 360° camera arrays and binaural microphones.
Some hurdles, such as the sheer amount of data involved — from the rendering process to content delivery — will be harder to overcome.
“Not only is the capture and post-production of the content hard, but so is the delivery, as the data for even a short immersive piece is huge,” says Simon Robinson, chief technology officer for The Foundry, which produces digital tools for film-makers. But other challenges, such as developing industry-wide standards with several big players entering the market, are more modest, says Christensen. “If you think about what IMAX had to do, not only did it have to build cameras and create content, it had to build theatres,” he explains. “Thankfully we don’t have to — the goggles will already be out there, driven at first by gaming.”
“Right now there’s not a mass audience you can monetise content to,” Milk says. “But you’ll start to see what feels like mass adoption towards the end of 2016, as everyone brings their content to market. Then things will begin to get exciting for us.”
One thing that remains to be seen is how content will be consumed in VR; going to the cinema is a social experience, rarely a solitary one. “We do think the social experience is important — and that’s why it’s a great validation point that Facebook bought Oculus,” Christensen says. “We think it’ll start with people watching in your living room, but potentially in the future you might go to a place like a movie theatre and watch it with others.”
One thing film-makers are clear on: although VR is certainly the future, don’t expect it to replace the big screen. “It’s not going to replace TV or movies. It’s a new medium,” says Christensen. Milk agrees. “It’s like the beginning of cinema,” says Milk. “The potential for storytellers is amazing.”