Around the time James Cameron’s “Avatar” was becoming the highest-grossing movie in history in 2009, a lot of entertainment industry prophesiers were declaring 3D to be the future of film. That has not turned out to be the case. Even as 3D has remained economically viable -- theaters have doubled down on the technology to provide an experience that cannot be replicated at home -- the format ultimately just plays a role in the industry, instead of turning it on its head.
Now, another new technology is making waves in entertainment: virtual reality. However, the virtual reality industry would like it known that it is not the future of any other medium; it has a future all its own.
All the major players in VR, including people from Samsung, Framestore, Google, Oculus and Industrial Light & Magic, gathered in New York City on Oct. 23 for the first-of-its-kind StoryNEXT conference, a part of the New York Television Festival. The event consisted of panels, roundtables and showcases displaying the latest technology, exploring the storytelling possibilities of the medium and addressing the key questions facing the still very young industry. The one thing everyone could agree on, though, is that VR is a new medium, a new way of telling stories, not merely a method of enhancing an established platform like film or television.
“It’s like the 1940s with TVs,” said Matt Apfel, Samsung VP of creative content and strategy. “It’s early days.”
Much the way television modeled itself after radio in its infancy, with advertising partners directly sponsoring specific shows, VR is taking its cues from well-established video content models. Many believe that is a mistake. The consensus at StoryNEXT was that virtual reality’s interactive and immersive components, not to mention its distinctive technology -- VR employs cameras that shoot in 360 degrees with the entire environment in focus -- make it a unique beast.
“Forget everything you learned in film school,” said Mike Woods, chief creative officer of White Rabbit VR and one of the main creative minds behind a “Game of Thrones” experience showcased at the conference on the Oculus Rift headset. “It’s not a camera, it’s a person. If you want inspiration, look to the people playing games and thinking about interaction.”
Watch a video detailing Woods' "Game of Thrones" project below:
ILM executive producer Wayne Billheimer echoed Woods’ philosophy.
“Story does not exist in a flat plane,” said Billheimer, boss of the special effects company behind the “Star Wars” films, after showing a virtual reality demo featuring C-3PO and R2-D2. “You want to be able to interact with and tell your own stories."
However, while producers and executives alike agreed that VR content should look different from any other video content, no one seems really sure yet what the right formula might be. Being able to look in any direction and feel immersed in an environment is undoubtedly a thrill, but it presents more than a few storytelling challenges. In television and film, the camera frame forces the audience into a carefully curated perspective to follow a story. This, in essence, is what a director and cinematographer work together to achieve. In VR, the frame gets thrown out the window.
“How do you direct someone’s attention when they can look anywhere,” asked RYOT Chief Operating Officer Molly Swenson, who uses the technology for her media website's elaborate journalism projects that put the audience, for instance, in the middle of an earthquake’s aftermath in Nepal.
This is compounded by the fact that in a 360-degree shooting environment, the director cannot be on set, lest he or she appear in the video.
At StoryNEXT, many worried that these content challenges could threaten the young and vulnerable industry.
“I worry about bad content,” said Steve Schklair, a VR producer with 3ality Technica. “It’s easy to lose people and not easy to bring them back.”
Layla Mah, lead architect at VR tech developer AMD, agreed. “People making the mistake of thinking they can transfer 2D to VR could be detrimental,” she said.
There are many more challenges as well. The role of advertising within VR content remains a mystery in an industry wanting for revenue streams, as does the accessibility of VR headsets to the common consumer. Cheap options like Google Cardboard allow consumers to simulate VR with 360-degree video, but the real deal headsets remain expensive. Plus, manufacturers must navigate obstacles like users who wear glasses -- Apfel at Samsung told the crowd to “stay tuned” as far as that problem is concerned -- and pesky cords that hinder free-flowing, immersive experiences.
However, by and large the conference participants remained optimistic that it is simply a matter of time before the medium catches on and makes a more significant impact.
“All of the constraints we see with the technology are just opportunities,” Swenson argued.
StoryNEXT may have raised more questions than it answered, but the industry’s leaders are looking forward to a brighter future -- in every direction.