There are two suns in the sky.
Two suns over a desert world and the silhouette of the Millennium Falcon means you’re on the original, iconic Star Wars world of Tatooine. The Falcon lands, R2-D2 shows up, and soon you’ve got a lightsaber in your hand, deflecting blaster bolts back at Imperial Stormtroopers.
The Promise of Virtual Reality
Once upon a time, this was the fantastical promise of Virtual Reality: that computer technology would advance to the point of creating a realistic illusion of being inside a galaxy far, far away. One that could transport us to the top of a Himalayan peak, or down to the depths of the ocean. A device that would trick the mind into believing that it was really there.
It was a promise first made by popular culture in the 1980s when people still said “personal computer,” and a Macintosh was best known as a variety of apple. Writers like William Gibson had nerdy teenagers dreaming of “jacking into” cyberspace in order to escape their mundane suburbanite lives. After a false start in the 90s in the form of some embarrassingly bad arcade games, the dream of virtual reality went into hibernation.
With the smartphone boom of the last decade, the digital world has colonized our actual reality. Everywhere you go people sit mesmerized by screens, from the ones on the wall to those kept in their pocket. We don’t need to go into cyberspace: cyberspace surrounds us.
Yet that very same smartphone technology that has fueled the digital revolution is also the backbone of the renaissance of virtual reality that started a few years ago. Every VR device on the market, or about to launch, uses the same screen technology that powers smartphones. In some cases, like with Google’s Cardboard initiative and Samsung’s Gear VR, smartphones are the actual heart of the device.
During its years of hibernation VR technology could mostly be found in university media labs. That’s where Palmer Luckey was when he came on board journalist Nonny de la Pena’s project Hunger in Los Angeles to create an interactive VR simulation of Los Angeles’ skid row for an installation that would debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
Fired up by the experience Luckey used the still relatively little-known crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to fund his goal of making a head mounted display (HMD) for VR he called the Oculus Rift. In 2014 when he was 21 years old, Facebook bought Oculus VR for over $2 billion.
Yet that very same smartphone technology that has fueled the digital revolution is also the backbone of the renaissance of virtual reality
And now we stand at what both Hollywood and Silicon Valley hope will be a new era in electronic entertainment. One where consumers will chase after the elusive sense of “presence”—the illusion that you are actually somewhere else—with open pocketbooks.
By the time the Christmas shopping season comes around this year, consumers will be facing a slew of options for experiencing virtual reality in their own homes.
The most basic VR system on the market is Google’s Cardboard viewer, which is a cheap - in some cases free - collection of cases for various Android and iPhone devices. Using a clever arrangement of lenses in cardboard, it creates a reliable, if limited, 3D viewer. Most versions of Cardboard require you to hold the device up to your face, just like those old Viewmaster 3D viewers, only it shows video instead of static images.
The next step up the line is Samsung’s Gear VR. It relies on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone and a viewer that has a built in touchpad interface to create a more robust VR experience than Cardboard. Like higher-end VR devices the Gear VR is worn as a headset, and a user can look around freely without having to hold the device in place. The headset, sans phone, costs about $100. One advantage, aside from price, that the Gear VR has over the higher end devices is that it doesn't need to be plugged into a computer, so there are no pesky cables to get tangled in.
On the high end of the market there are three contenders, and it is here that the future of VR may get decided.
Sony has weighed in with the PlayStation VR, a dedicated headset that requires one of their Playstation 4 game consoles. Oculus, the company that kicked the VR craze back off, and phone maker HTC have the Rift and the Vive, respectively. Both of these devices need high-end PCs to function. When all is said and done the complete Sony package will cost consumers a little under $1000, with the Oculus and HTC devices running $1500 or more depending on the computer that’s powering everything.
Virtual Reality Right Now
At the moment, all three of the high-end devices are being marketed mostly to gamers. They will, the thinking goes, be the heart of the VR market in its early years. But that business savvy hasn’t stopped movie studios, marketers, and indie creators alike from imagining VR’s future as a medium of its own. Or how cinematic experiences will play out on a 360 canvas. The Star Wars scenario this article started with is something that Lucasfilm whipped up and showed the press and public at this year’s Game Developers Conference. In years prior, special effects studios have turned up everywhere from South By Southwest to Comic-Con with VR riffs on popular series like "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead."
Indeed, it is filmmakers that are defining the soul of this medium.
Immersive journalist Nonny de la Pena’s work uses video game graphics engines to recreate the scenes of civic tragedies like bombings in Syria, the slaying of Treyvon Martin, and the aforementioned issue of overrun food banks in Los Angeles. These experiences—which feature the actual audio of the events depicted—can be shockingly moving. Even with crudely animated characters acting out the scene (she made Hunger in Los Angeles for less than $600) there is an immediacy to the work that comes from being totally surrounded by the events.
Chris Milk is another filmmaker who is pioneering how to tell stories with this tech. His Vrse.works company has put out some of the most thrilling immersive experiences so far—from documentaries to music videos. Milk’s company has collaborated with the New York Times, U2, and Saturday Night Live amongst others.
An early Vrse piece followed VICE reporter Alice Speri during the “Millions March” in December of 2014, putting the viewer down on the streets of New York City as the protest shut down traffic. Watching that piece creates a kind of double awareness: the viewer knows that they are not actually on the streets of New York, and yet everywhere one turns there are protestors and cars. When Speri speaks to one protestor about why she is out on the streets, the young woman’s pain and anguish is palpable. There is no frame to conceal her body language from the viewer. As such it is all the more effective at conveying emotion.
Creating Virtual Reality Content
There is an old adage about how the camera doesn’t lie, and while generations of editing and special effects wizardry have long put that saying to rest, the 360 lens of a VR camera introduced new complications. Especially for actors. Performance for 360 lenses is one part film acting to two parts theatrical. Even though there are filmmakers who are experimenting with editing for VR films, the most compelling experiences don’t rely on jumping the camera around but on letting the viewer absorb the scene as it is. That includes the actors, who have to be fully “present” if they want to maintain the user’s illusion of presence.
In other words: bad acting is even worse in VR than it is in movies and TV.
Which is actually exciting news for those of us who care about the craft of filmmaking and the quality of our entertainment. While 360 filmmaking creates all kinds of technical challenges (even the smallest edit can be incredibly disorienting) it provides an excellent platform for the core crafts of filmmaking to shine. Compelling set design is almost a requirement for 360 filmmaking, and a virtuosic actor can make more of an impression with a sustained performance.
While 360 filmmaking creates all kinds of technical challenges (even the smallest edit can be incredibly disorienting) it provides an excellent platform for the core crafts of filmmaking to shine.
So many of the storytelling tricks that filmmakers have developed over a century of cinema don’t work in quite the same way in VR. Editing is possible but requires thinking about space and movement in a different way when the editor doesn’t know where the viewer is looking. Creative solutions to these problems will come from two directions: the filmmakers who find ways to work within the confines of the technology and the way that it affects viewers, and the coders who find ways to make films more seamlessly interactive.
The Future is Now
Because the future where we could stand next to the Millennium Falcon we were promised has arrived, and a new future is being dreamed up. One where instead of being stuck with a single edit the filmmakers can let us follow the characters we find most interesting. Where cameras record scenes using “light field” technology that will let us walk around the set. Like the VR headsets before them, these ideas and devices are being worked on in labs around the world and tested by VR’s avant-garde.
All of which are just more ways to chase the promise of presence. To keep keeping the illusion that these devices transport us outside of our living rooms and into distant places both real and imagined. Engaging even more of our senses and awareness than film already does, and in so doing finding new ways to move us all emotionally.
Noah Nelson (@noahjnelson) is a producer with the Peabody Award winning Youth Radio, his reporting on virtual reality has appeared on National Public Radio. He’s also the founder of No Proscenium, which explores the realm of live-action immersive entertainment.