VR is Dead. Or is it?

This is a reprint of a LinkedIn article I published on Dec. 4.

big-ass-camera

Your mother is not going to buy and use this camera system.

Recently Shaw Walters took to LinkedIn to write a brief article about why he thought “VR is Dead”, or at least stillborn. He comes at this from the point of view of storytelling, and how VR isolates the viewer. There is nothing to disagree with the latter — strapping on a headset does isolate the viewer. However, the storytelling part requires a little more thoughtful analysis. Beyond those, there are many more applications of VR beyond mere entertainment, and Shaw touched on one briefly in his article but did not fully expand upon its applications — volumetric capture and display. In addition, “VR” as a term encompasses many different things to different people, namely:

·        360 degree images (panoramas)

·        360 degree videos (what some mistakenly call VR)

·        360 degree stereoscopic videos (my definition of true VR)

·        Augmented reality (this is not VR)

·        Volumetric (this is definitely not VR)

I will attempt to go through each one, because the impact on storytelling and UX of each is different, and certainly each has their applications beyond entertainment. My thesis is that VR is not, in fact, dead — while agreeing with Shaw’s premise that true VR is a stepping stone to something bigger.

360 degree images (panoramas)

These have been around for quite a long time, even going back to analog film capture systems. Since the advent of good stitching software and elaborate hardware capture systems this has become easier. In the past this required multiple photos from a single camera to be stitched, exposure-matched, and more. They have always been popular as a way to capture moments in time in totality from a single perspective — if difficult and technically challenging to create.  Importantly, the display and rendering of this content doesn’t require a headset. Facebook, for example, has fully embraced this format on its timeline as have other social networks (Twitter, Instagram, the list goes on). One change recently that helped spur this is the advent of easy to use single-shot 360 cameras such as the 360Fly and Ricoh Theta — this has resulted in a veritable explosion of 360 content available on these social networks. Although the experience of one of these 360 photos is certainly more immersive with a VR headset, it is plenty enough to have a desktop with a mouse to move and look around, or have a mobile phone and move it around to experience the totality of the 360 view. Just as a single data-point: Ricoh’s new 360 camera business contributed significantly to their Camera and Leasing business which did about $700M in their recent fiscal year. The addition of those product lines apparently increased that unit’s operating profit by over 100% year over year. This implies unit shipments in the millions. In my estimation, this format is not going anywhere — it will continue to grow, especially as higher quality capture devices become available, as they inevitably will.

360 degree videos (what some mistakenly call VR)

This is a medium in its own right — but again, it’s not VR because it, like a panorama, does not require strapping on a headset in order to fully experience it. This medium does, however, have a significant impact on storytelling. No longer does the cinematographer or casual shooter get to frame the viewer’s attention by pointing the camera in a certain direction and framing the shot. Lighting and gaffing and crew positioning are complicated because the camera sees everything, in 360 degrees, including the crew. (Enter a big rock, stage right) In spite of these facts, they do not mean that storytelling is not possible. For example, I could imagine a long continuous single-shot sequence like the famous and intense street battle in Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P.D. James’s “Children of Men” being shot in 360 successfully — the action is what directs your attention, and the 360 might even add suspense and add to the intended disorientation and anxiety. Other tools can be brought to bear as well such as spatial audio — the direction of someone’s monologue or the crack of a rifle can be used to immediately draw a viewer’s attention to a particular direction. However, this medium does preclude the use of the cinematographer’s basic tools of the trade such as framing, soft focus, shallow depth of field, and even complicates later tasks such as color grading. This is definitely less of a passive-consumption medium than it is interactive, and it requires a new storytelling “language” than the typical cinematographer possesses. Nevertheless, the aforementioned 360 camera systems are democratizing the creation of this kind of content by the masses — they can shoot video as well — and therefore, the social media networks are now supporting this medium. Brand advertisers are following right behind in adoption and adaptation, as well. For these reasons, this type of “VR” is not dead, either — I expect to see continued adoption and growth in cameras, platforms, and content with 360 video.

360 degree stereoscopic videos (my definition of true VR)

This medium is where Shaw’s opinions and ours will converge, somewhat. Unlike the previous two, this medium does require the viewer to strap on a headset — which at best will make them look like Giordi from Star Trek–Next Generation or at worst look like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. Furthermore, this medium’s display technology is a single-location experience — seated, standing in place, or at best in a room with no tables and chairs to trip over. The requirement that instigates this is the need to present a different image to each eye for a stereoscopic experience. There’s nothing that Facebook’s timeline can do to accomplish this on a webpage, so headgear like the Oculus will always be required. This will never be a medium experienced “on-the-go”. Creating content in this medium is also fraught with difficulty — all of the foregoing rules and limitations for “simple” 360 video still apply. If creating computer generated imagery, the rules of the road are well known. With live action, much less so. If filmmakers had difficulty with doing *good* stereoscopic 3D with normal cameras, doing so with 360 camera rigs is ten times as difficult (if not more). Nevertheless, I think we will see good VR content being produced in the next few years, but it will be a high-end niche — the realm of VR “cafes”, amusement parks and the high-end gaming crowd. Google Cardboard presents an interesting counterpoint, but I think its widespread adoption will be limited to branding campaigns and real-estate tours, not entertainment. As much as Mark Zuckerberg talks up 360 social experiences with avatars and such — I’m not buying it. So for this one I call it definitely not dead, but a small but growing niche.

Augmented reality (this is not VR)

Most assume that augmented reality (AR) requires a headset of some sort — it does not, as evidenced by applications like Aurasma for mobile devices, and Pokemon Go, being a recent (if frivolous) example. However, my belief is that discrete eyewear is where this will eventually lead — everyone will be wearing them if they’re stylish, nonobtrusive, and adds value to their daily lives whether it be entertainment and amusement, timely information, or learning. Microsoft’s Hololens is a window to the future, in my opinion. However, it is not the present because it is a) too expensive b) too clunky, at least for now and finally c) not high resolution enough to subtend a significant amount of the viewer’s field of view. What about “We-have-a-secret-but-we’re-not-telling-you” Magic Leap? I can’t really comment on them because I don’t know anything — they won’t tell me. However, one of the biggest problems with eyewear AR is — how do you show black when you’re staring at a bright object in real life? Anyone who solves that problem effectively, and who can put that in an otherwise ordinary looking pair of reading glasses will create a massive market for this medium. What about storytelling in AR? This is 360, so a lot of the same rules for 360 video will apply. It’s stereoscopic, too, so all of the usual difficulties for 360 stereoscopic apply as well, at least if one wants live-action AR. It will certainly require the creation of a new language for storytelling, in the very least. It may be different, but doesn’t mean it won’t be created.

Volumetric (this is definitely not VR)

Shaw touched on the capture of multiple images to create 3D models… in the entertainment space we view these tools primarily in the context of visual effects. They can certainly assist with the creation of 360 and VR (and AR) content, but in and of themselves these tools such as multi-image modeling and motion capture are not VR. Nevertheless, I predict (which is easy because I’m seeing this in action now) an explosion of the availability and proliferation of these tools, and not just for VFX and entertainment. In the commercial space, applications such as mapping, construction site management, cell tower inspection, and infrastructure inspection (think bridges, pipelines and power lines) are just now utilizing the power of volumetric capture using tools such as Pix4D, DroneDeploy, and  SketchFab by capturing multiple high resolution photos or video to create volumetric models (while being accurately calibrated for distances), thereby creating new and exciting markets and applications for data that previously were not possible to create.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Is VR dead? No, it’s just getting started, depending upon how you define VR. 360 images and video are entrenched already with a healthy ecosystem of capture devices, content, and platforms to distribute and display them on. Strap-on VR headsets will be a niche, but a growing one. AR is the inevitable future, and volumetric capture is finding applications beyond media and entertainment already, today.

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~ by opticalflow on December 9, 2016.

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