It’s no secret that virtual reality (VR) is starting to cause a ripple in the film industry. Yes, the Oculus Rift is first and foremost a gaming headset and we’ve already seen plenty of examples of how it can enhance the medium, but the technology has also caught the attention of film and TV makers over the past year. We’re not talking anything like a full scale Hollywood invasion just yet, but if James Cameron knows what an Oculus Rift is and admits he’d be ‘interested’ in integrating the technology into a movie, then it’s clear that those ripples have the potential to turn into waves.
Of course, the Avatar director didn’t flat out declare VR to be a bold new direction for cinema when he spoke about it on Reddit. In fact he raised a few key issues that, at this point in time, are preventing the technology from making more of an impression on the film and TV communities. He spoke about the potential expense of filming in VR; perhaps not something that would directly concern a director that has been granted budgets upwards of $200 million USD. But his second point hit home, labelling VR filming as ‘technically daunting’. Coming from the man that made one of the most technically accomplished 3D films in existence that means something.
That said, Cameron’s comments have to be taken in context. Yes, he’s responsible for the highest-grossing movie ever made, but he may not be familiar with the likes of the Panocam3D and other rigs that are making 3D 360 degree filming possible. On top of that not every director aspires to create big budget features that are strewn with impressive explosions and special effects. In fact, as those that attended last night’s Inition VR event in London found, significant progress is being made in this field by filmmakers that aren’t necessarily gunning for those adrenaline-pumping experiences. Filmmakers Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael proved as much with ONCE, an experience dedicated to creating authentic, convincing live-action VR films.
VRFocus will have more on ONCE in the near future, including an interview with Lajeunesse and Raphael, but the short film that currently showcases the technology is said to be nearly flawless in its stitching (sticking images taken from multiple cameras together) and its immersion. Titled Strangers – A Moment with Patrick Watson, the short piece places viewers in an intimate setting with Watson, who plays the piano while you’re free to gaze about your surroundings, taking in every detail of the scene as you’re immersed further and further into the experience.
But there are still issues that flimmakers will have to consider before VR truly makes an impact on the medium. Simulator sickness has been an issue that the Oculus Rift has strived to overcome in videogames. It’s something Oculus VR hopes to abolish with the release of the second developer kit (DK2) this July, which crucially includes positional tracking to register the user’s head movements in pretty much any direction. In a virtual space, this is easy to recreate in the experience. In a live-action piece it might prove to be more of an issue. The cameras that currently shoot 360 film are static; there isn’t, to the best of our knowledge, a rig that compensates for the viewer moving his head up, down, forwards, backwards, left or right.
Solutions to such an issue are yet to be presented, mainly because the technology’s integration with film is still so young. But perhaps it would be possible to create a new kind of rig that spreads its lenses out in new heights and angles, if not a rig that could perhaps move itself to compensate for some head movement, however slight. Without a proper fix, it could well be jarring to watch VR footage and have to keep your head still, especially when transitioning from videogames in which you’re used to having those freedoms.
The issue of length also arises. The ONCE piece is only a short film; do users really want to strap on a headset to sit through a 2 hour long experience? That would surely cause some eye strain and major headaches. TV will likely find itself able to adapt to this issue but film is another matter. And, of course, there’s a social element to films that simply can’t exist when viewing them with a headset. Heading to the cinema to watch a release on the same screen as everyone else isn’t an experience many will want to trade for isolated headset-viewing any time soon. Even then, is there space for VR viewing anywhere outside of the home?
Many of these questions don’t have answers yet. But it’s important to remember that, as young as VR videogames are, 3D 360 Degree films and TV using VR headsets are younger still. We don’t doubt that someone has the solutions to these issues, be it the team behind ONCE or another outlet. It’s an exciting time for the industry, a time of growth and creativity. Let’s hope VR can do for films what it’s already doing for videogames.
‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.