Every year at the NAB Show – the world’s largest trade show for broadcasting, TV, and digital cinema production tools and technology – there is one or two new ideas that seem to be the theme of the show. Things that everyone is talking about, that they made the trip to Las Vegas to see.
In 2016, that thing was VR – virtual reality. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive had recently launched, as had the lower-priced Samsung Gear VR, and with consumers now able to experience VR content, creators had a lot of questions on how to make it, and how to make it work.
Storytelling in VR
I had several conversations with other attendees who were mortified at the prospect of trying to tell a story in VR. They couldn’t fathom how to ensure the viewer saw what they needed to see in order to move the story forward, when the viewer had the freedom to look wherever he/she wished. This sentiment was so widespread that there was a huge section of the CPUG SuperMeet dedicated to it.
Ted Schilowitz, former “Leader of the Rebellion” at Red Digital Cinema and current futurist at 20th Century Fox, was brought in to moderate the SuperMeet’s VR session, and he kicked it off with a great demonstration of how to direct a story in VR:
The details have faded from memory because I procrastinated for over three months in writing this article, but essentially the demo consisted of several individuals planted throughout the audience who proceeded to engage in an argument. The point was that depending on where you were sitting, each participant in the show was located in a different direction. As they spoke, you would naturally turn from one to the other, thus Ted was able to get the audience to look where he wanted regardless of the fact that we all had the freedom to look wherever we wanted.
The amusing thing about this for me is that this all seemed so incredibly obvious that I wondered why all my fellow filmmakers felt so much anxiety over it. As a thirty-something who grew up with video games, I understood that game designers had solved this problem years ago. Many games are, after all, virtual reality experiences.
Of course, many games use scripted non-interactive cut scenes to drive their stories forward, but increasingly, they are also incorporating story elements into gameplay. Games such as the Dark Souls series sprinkle lore across their game worlds and rely on players to find and assemble the pieces. Games in the Half Life and BioShock series often allow the player to retain control during scripted scenes, letting them choose where to focus their attention.
Many filmmakers will look at the example of video games and argue that films are not games. They are right; though there has been much convergence in game and film narrative, the interactive element remains a fundamental difference. VR exists as kind of a bridge between them; a format that can work for interactive titles as well as completely scripted stories.
This, to me, is the exciting thing about VR. It’s not about trying to shoehorn in the current language of cinema. It’s about opening the door to new storytelling techniques that are not possible in traditional filmmaking. The creators who thrive in VR will be the ones who embrace the opportunity to explore this new territory.
And what about traditional filmmaking. I’m sure there are those who fear that VR will make it obsolete. Certainly, many of the companies investing in VR are already trying to put that spin on things. But film has weathered television and video games, just as novels and live theater have weathered film. VR is something distinct from film, and will live alongside it.
Prior to NAB, I was pretty excited about VR but had not experienced it for myself. A few days before leaving for Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to try a sampler on Gear VR using a Galaxy S7 phone. My impressions of that session was that it was a cool gimmick, but the technology using the phone was underwhelming. In particular, the resolution of the image was distractingly low. All of the sub-pixels were visible, giving the whole image a rainbow sheen somewhat reminiscent of bad anaglyphic 3D. I chalked it up to the low-end headset and looked forward to seeing how much better it would be on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
It took me a while to get around to visiting the VR Pavillion at NAB, but even on the last day of the show it was packed and there were lines at every station. Nokia had the largest booth, showcasing their new Ozo camera through Vive and Gear VR headsets. I lined up at one of the Vive stations and patiently waited my turn.
I was underwhelmed yet again. The Vive and Rift have higher horizontal resolution per eye than Gear VR with current Galaxy phones (but, I believe, lower vertical resolution), but it wasn’t enough to make those sub-pixels disappear. All in all, my experience with VR left me feeling that current display technology is just doesn’t have enough resolution, and it’s distracting enough to break the immersion, which undermines the whole point of VR in the first place. Additionally, I experienced a lot of motion tracking issues with all of the Vive and Rift headsets I tried, which I didn’t experience in my pre-NAB time with the Gear VR. I don’t know if that was a problem with the headsets themselves but I feel it was likely due to the way they were configured at the booths.
At the end of the day, I’m still very excited for the future of VR, but I don’t think the current displays are good enough. The good thing about this situation is that VR storytelling is also immature, and I think it’ll be good to see the art grow alongside the technology. Hopefully, once the headsets are really good enough, the VR creators will have the storytelling aspect fully figured out.
Here is a quick look at the VR Pavilion at NAB, where you can see Nokia showing off their OZO camera.