Live Action VR – Feature

Posted April 17, 2014 by Edmund in Features

It is getting increasingly difficult to deny that VR is well on its way becoming a viable gaming platform. Barely a day goes by without a new, innovative, games being released or announced. But VR promises to be disruptive to many other cultural industries as well. Titans of Space is a convincing proof of concept for VR as an education tool and new ways of conceiving of traditional media, are emerging in the forms of virtual browsers and simulated cinemas. RiftMax theatre and VR Cinema create a virtual screen, replicating a traditional cinema setting. These applications represent a certain vision for how we might consume traditional movies and video content in VR. 3D video works particularly well in these virtual theatre apps. With sufficient resolution, head mounted displays could become a viable alternative to a home cinema system for some.

Simulating the familiar modes of consumption is not the extent of the potential for video in VR, though. With it’s head tracking and wide field of view VR has the potential to create a whole new category of film experience. The technology to create and enjoy 360″ 3D video is here, and whilst the live-action VR content available right now is quite limited, serious filmmakers are paying attention to the possibilities. Atlantic  Production are rumoured to be considering making portions of the next David Attenborough documentary available through the Oculus Rift.

360 VR setupVarious production companies, hardware manufacturers and filmmakers are experimenting with different techniques for capturing 360″ video in stereoscopic 3D. If you’re interested in trying some of these videos for yourself then you’ll need VR Player – a video application that can supports the various different distortion effects needed to correctly display different kinds of 3D video files. It doesn’t draw IPD settings from the Oculus config tool, instead requiring you to modify variables in its settings menus. This means you’ll need to seek out recommendations for different video types and then experiment with optimising the experience for comfort.

The Panocam3D is a camera with 12 lenses in a hexagonal arrangement. It can film a 360″ panorama in stereoscopic 3D by stitching together the video from each pair of lenses. These cameras are priced in the “prosumer” price range of about $5000 on their indiegogo campaign. There are a dozen demonstration videos available on the panocam website along with details on the codecs and VR Player settings that you’ll need.

Most of these 360″ videos are static outdoor scenes. Some of the landscapes are quite pretty, yet a bit dull. There is an homage to the famous 1895 short film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which is interesting but probably won’t have you running away in fear of being run over by the train. The best is probably the Skate-park, which has plenty of interesting things to look at going on all around you. Being right next to a skater as they perform tricks, safe in the knowledge that they’re not going to crash into you, is fun and engaging. Tracking a skater with across the park really does give you a more involved experience than you’d get from watching on a flat screen.

900780-360-degree-videoThere is a video of a shark in an aquarium, which was actually a little disappointing as the 3D did not seem to work properly. It may just be the lighting, or the fact that the subject is being filmed through glass and water, or it may have simply been an issue with my personal settings for VR player. Overall the quality of the demonstration clips available is pretty variable.

What really doesn’t work is having the camera in motion. There is a roller-coaster video that is not a patch on something like the Riftcoaster demo. The camera is not properly stabilised so the video  awkwardly jitters about, and the seams where different angles have been stitched together are especially noticeable. These visual defects are also present in the Panocam Karting video, and they make the experience uncomfortable and nauseating. By contrast, immersive media agency, Visualise, showed off a similar 360″ video in a formuala one car at the latest London VR meetup hosted by Inition.

In Visualise’s video, stitching distortions were barely visible and the ride was much more comfortable despite being much, much faster than the panocam Karting video. It is not clear whether or not this was due to superior recording equipment or just more care in post-production. Thoughtful positioning of the camera also made Visualise’s effort more enjoyable. In the panocam Karting video it is disconcerting to turn around to see the driver’s face uncomfortably close to your own. Visualise positioned their camera to the side of the driver, allowing you to comfortably watch his movements as an alternative to watching the track.

360-1-med

Also at the Inition VR meetup in London were Félix & Paul studios who talked about their 360″ film, “Once” and displayed it on an HD rift prototype. “Once” is a simple scene featuring a musician playing a few feet away from you in a cluttered studio. It does not differ wildly in intensity or wow-factor from the other videos that you can try but it is of a higher quality. The filmmakers talked about wanting to focus on “mastering the native forces of the medium” before trying to tackle a narrative. They are well on the way – The video is seamless and the 3D is excellent.  Watching the single subject perform right next to you is mesmerizing. And it is only a small step from there to dialogues and other scenes with narrative human action. Unfortunately “Once” is not yet publicly available for the Oculus Rift, and nor are Visualise’s videos.

As much as I am loath to admit it, the most technically accomplished live-action VR that is available to download is coming, unsurprisingly, out of the porn industry. A striptease has been produced with the panocam3D, although this is not publicly available on their site. This is a shame because it is actually one of the better examples of 3D created with the device. Just like “Once,” its focus on a single subject provides an interesting study for any would-be live-action VR directors to consider. As immersive as it is to be able to look around the room you are in, most narrative scenes will seek to focus your attention. In the panocam striptease, our subject walks behind us for half of the video – which is an obvious attempt to demonstrate 360″ view, but it also serves to highlight how awkward and uncomfortable it is to have to rotate 180″ just to follow the focus of the scene. Anyone thinking about producing 360″ video needs to consider the comfort of the user in how they compose and choreograph their scenes. Delving further into the realms of NSFW, Oculus Real Porn are taking a slightly different approach. Their videos are head-tracked 120 and 180″ fields of view using two fisheye DSLRs. This smaller field of view still fosters a level of immersion desirable for erotica, and the 3D on these videos seems more effective than what is achieved with the 360″ videos.

Immersive-Media1Of course, porn often leads the way in new video platforms, so it is little surprise that it is taking the lead in VR as well. It is important to stress, however, that there are plenty of potential other uses for both 360″ and 180″ video that the whole family can enjoy. For example, filming stage-plays is notoriously tricky, requiring cuts between a number of cameras to provide an engaging experience for the viewer. With a 180″ camera, the viewer would be able to experience the play in an almost identical way to that of a live audience member. Live action 360″ film should also probably be thought of as more akin to a play than a traditional movie. Most scenes would need to be done in one take as the medium will not afford the director the ability to cut to a different angle. The entire use of the space of the scene will also need to be directed like a play, but like a play in which there is a single audience member, who is on the stage and amongst the actors. Something like Abigail’s Party might work very well as a live-action VR experience, even if it might struggle to find an audience with existing Rift owners.

Even a made-for-VR, one-act play with a small cast and a small controlled set, will have to contend with the danger that the viewer may direct their attention in the ‘wrong’ places and miss key events. Project-vm’s interactive Live-action 360″ tech demo shows off some clever techniques for mitigating the issue of player attention. This is a stand alone application, so it does a bit more than just play a video file. It uses clever stitching of videos and editing effects to have the action only trigger when you are looking at it. So, for example, the video only starts aproper when you turn to look at the door, at which point someone walks in. He throws a ball over your head and when you turn to see where it went, another person is now behind you to catch it. This method of triggering videos depending on where you look is pretty seamless unless you are consciously trying to break it and could prove a really useful technique to help direct the attention of the viewer. Of course it’s only going to be possible in controlled environments but still, it opens up an intriguing set of possibilities.

Hiyoshi Jump is another stand alone application using Oculus inputs to manipulate a live-action 360″ video. You jump off the ground and are shot high up into the air to and fall back down to the spot you landed on. The height you reach is determined by the strength of your jump. This has been achieved by strapping a 360 camera to a quadropter and it’s a pretty cool effect. Unfortunately the quadropter is visible, and also your descent is simply the video played backwards, which is rather presence-breaking,-  particularly when you notice the athletes on the track all running backwards. Hiyoshi Jump is an amusing diversion but it also serves to highlight the difficulties in achieving presence with dynamic, moving shots.

Live-action VR is feels very different to being in a rendered environment. A true sense of presence is almost harder to attain with video. The visual fidelity of the scene makes imperfections all the more noticable. Often the sense of 3D seems less sharply defined than in an entirely fabricated world. Distortion can be noticeable at the top and bottom of your view, as well as where parts of the video have been stitched together. Even without visual imperfections, the fact that you can not move or interact with your environment can feel uncanny unless you have a clear subject to focus your attention on. The overall sensation is more like being a fly on the wall than being present in the scene. Directors of live-action VR experiences will need to be aware of this and use the medium’s limitations to their advantage. Sound design will likely become an incredibly important element in helping a filmmakers direct the viewer’s attention.

To suggest that 360″ cinema will replace traditional cinema is even more absurd than the much ridiculed notion that all films should be shot in 3D. Most established cinematic techniques go completely out the window for live-action VR. New techniques will need to be developed in order to take advantage of 360″ filmmaking. Palmer Luckey recently suggested that Head mounted displays could kill the TV screen in the next twenty years. But this seems to miss the point that watching film and TV is a social activity in our culture and it seems likely there will always be demand to sit round a screen together in real life. Riftmax theater attempts to take advantage of this insight by making it’s virtual theatres social, mutli-user spaces, but this approach makes no sense for a 360″ film. It may be possible, in some form, for a 180″ film but fundamentally, live-action VR video is a solitary experience. Live-action VR should not be thought of as a replacement or even an upgrade from traditional film but as an entirely new category of entertainment. It is not likely to drive uptake of hardware in the short or medium-term, but as more VR headsets penetrate the mass-market, expect to see a growing number of innovative filmmakers exploring the possibilities of VR video.

Photo Credit: The Thumbnail for this video is taken from Condition One’s 360″ movie, Zero Point

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About the Author

Edmund

Edmund Ward is a philosophy graduate who has focused on aesthetics and cultural critique in the information age. He grew up with 'the dream of the holodeck' and is prone to get very excited by new innovations in natural user-interfaces. Edmund is currently looking for volunteers to look after the glucose drip that will sustain his "fleshform" (as he insists on calling it) when he migrates permanently to VR.

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