Was 2016 really the year of VR?
They told us VR was going to be the big technology of 2016. Was it? Michael Burns takes a look back
This time last year interest in virtual reality was largely confined to experiential installations and the games industry. In 2016 on the other hand, you’ve not been able to move for some mention of it. The launch of Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive earlier this year heralded the arrival of serious VR playback for consumers, while specialist GoPro and Red rigs, and semi-automated cameras like Nokia’s OZO, are now delivering high quality 360° capture.
Sol Rogers, founder and CEO of Rewind feels 2016 was definitely the year of 360° video content, particularly with Samsung’s launch of its Gear VR and Google’s announcement of the Daydream HMD for mobile VR.
“However, until the last few months the public was largely unaware of the power of the devices they carry with them every day,” he adds. “It wasn’t until 'Pokemon Go' became an overnight phenomenon that people began to realise just how much could be done using a simple smartphone. We’re getting to a point where there is enough good content to justify investing in VR, and there will be something available to excite and engage everyone.”
Several new ventures were set up to service demand this past year. January saw Manchester-based dock10 launch a 360 VR content service, with 360° access to The Voice UK one of its first projects. Head of 360 production Richard Wormwell, observes a ‘huge amount of publicity and hype’ around the different types of technology available, both in capture and display: “I don’t think that it’s a question of the public being ready for VR, it’s more a question of the technology living up to the expectation of the hype.”
Another recent startup is Factory 42, an immersive content studio set up by former Sky channel head John Cassy and BAFTA-winning director Daniel Smith. “Everyone is learning and experimenting,” says Cassy. “The tech is moving quickly. More devices and better devices are becoming available at prices consumers can afford. But if you look at the long term technological possibilities, it feels like we are still in the VR Stone Age.”
The year of experimentation
?Futuresource Consulting published a report on VR earlier this year, entitled “Virtual Reality: Niche or Mass Market?” Michael Boreham, senior market analyst with the firm gave us an update, stating that 2016 has been ‘the year of experimentation’.
“VR is still taking baby steps with a great deal of work,” he observes. “PlayStation VR (PSVR, launched in mid-October) with PS 4/Pro, and the launch of Microsoft’s Project Scorpio console next year, will open up the console game arena and further raise consumer awareness of VR. Important work is being undertaken in the broadcast community, with a number of high profile sports trials, which included the Olympics, Premier League and Bundesliga football from Sky, BT and Fox Sports, as well as the NBA from Turner Sports in the USA.”
In search of a bigger audience
“This is the year that VR has come of age. It’s on everyone’s radar,” agrees Mike Davis, creative director at Atlantic Productions. “But we have to recognise that it’s going to be a while before it reaches a bigger audience, if indeed it does.
“I think the analytics that come out about who is consuming what [on PS VR] will be the first good guide as to how much people want something other than games,” he adds.
“What stories do they want to engage with? Is it purely experiential rides, or do people want dramas? I think we are starting to test the waters for the appetite that’s out there, rather than what industry insiders assume - they rarely get that right.”
One of Atlantic’s VR experiences is David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef Dive for the Natural History Museum. It was filmed at the same time as the company’s major BBC One series of a similar name, using 360° rigs in a submarine and in the water. However Atlantic financed the VR component independently.
Davis explains that museums, commercials, marketing and the luxury travel market are all keen on VR, but senses TV broadcasters have been more reluctant to get involved.
“The Mr. Robot VR Experience (a 13-minute VR narrative that complements the hit Amazon series) is a rare example of a big TV drama production that has recognised that you can excite an audience with VR,” Davis says. “But will that trend continue, or was that just a novelty?”
We’re getting to a point where there is enough good content to justify investing in VR
The increase in available technology and experimentation also poses some problems, not least badly produced VR.
“There is a lot of poor quality content out there and that is a risk to the sector,” says John Cassy. “If a consumer experiences bad 360 or VR the first time they put on a headset, it is going to have a negative impact on whether they put on a headset for a second time. A lot of current 360 video feels gimmicky - but there is some excellent stuff being made. True, VR is harder to find outside of the established game sector. But there are some great examples emerging. For Factory 42, truly interactive VR is one of the most exciting creative opportunities around.”
Factory 42 has just produced an immersive VR experience inspired by the English National Ballet’s Giselle, by award-winning choreographer Akram Khan. Created using a custom workflow and a mixture of Nuke for stitching, Maya and Blender for trails and 3D and Mistika for stereo compositing, Giselle VR was one of the first pieces available on Sky’s new VR app, launched in October.
One of Rewind’s recent productions is a 15 minute piece of immersive VR content for HTC Vive, in collaboration with the BBC, called Home: A VR Spacewalk.
“It has proved to be incredibly popular, and demonstrates a whole new type of storytelling that will become increasingly accessible to consumers through VR technology,” says Sol Rogers.
As well as Home, the BBC has been trialling a fair amount of standalone VR this year through its Taster initiative. “The reaction has been one of delight and wonder,” says Zillah Watson, editor of the BBC’s internet research and future services. “Audiences at festivals and events have been filled with awe by Home, with joy by the magical VR fairy tale The Turning Forest, have time-travelled to 1916 for Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, and come face to face with the migrant crisis in We Wait.”
I think we are starting to test the waters for the appetite that’s out there
The main feature
Game engines like Unreal or Unity are a common component in current VR production across the board. For example Rewind used Unreal 4 to create Home, with asset modelling in 3DS Max and Maya. “I think mixing with game technology will make the best use of 360°,” predicts Mike Davis. “You can have really engaging stories on rails, but there are points where you can get involved, where it suddenly evolves out of conventional visual storytelling.”
“We’re starting to see the shift away from content being requested as additional to the main event, as was with The Voice UK, to creative agencies commissioning 360° content as the main feature,” says Richard Wormwell. “We recently worked on a project called iScream for BBC3, a four-part horror show shot entirely in 360°. The whole production ran though one of dock10’s studios and galleries in the same way a traditional TV production is filmed. We had the director, producers and production teams in the galleries. All 360 camera rigs were feeding live into dock10’s infrastructure, so that the production team had live previews of what was happening on the floor. Sound, lighting and audio changes could be cued live, so that the person taking part felt that their experience was real, and not part of a studio set up. [Clients] are starting to understand the power fully immersive experiences can possess.”