VR for the novice: what the storyteller needs to know

VR seems to be 2016’s hot new media toy. Everyone from tech entrepreneurs, filmmakers and journalists are getting in on the 360 degree ride.

Virtual reality lets you go from a bustling city street to floating in the cloudy pillows of the sky. You are surrounded by the likes of a running Benicio del Toro or an awakened Charlize Theron.

VR is entangled between the complexity of being a high-level tech machine, and a tool for storytelling. For filmmakers who are looking to deliver an heightened degree of presence, VR grants that option. But before we go deep in the philosophy VR in filmmaking and alternative storytelling, let’s breakdown what are the major devices and who are the players in the space, and what makes each one different.

The entry-level.

One thing you may not realize is that not every VR experience is available for every VR platform. So before we look at some of the standout early VR experiences, let’s get familiar with they players and what each of them can do.

Google Cardboard

David Coz started Google Cardboard as his “20 percent time” project at Google. Google encourages employees to spend this fraction of their time, in addition to regular projects, working personal projects that they think will improve or benefit the company. His project was a cardboard box with two lenses with an opening slot for your phone, all strapped together with Velcro.

It’s a lower-grade VR experience, but a great choice if you want to get your feet wet without taking a hit in the wallet. I recommend trying out the Unofficial Cardboard 2.0 with the headstrap. It has a waxed coating that feels more comfortable against the skin than cardboard and the coating avoids unsightly wear and tear.

Because of it’s affordability and mobility, Cardboard is the most accessible VR viewer for the masses. NYtimes shipped them free to subscribers; schools are using them in classrooms,  and they are common giveaways at tech-focused parties and conferences. It’s the starter device that encourages those outside of tech to play and embrace this new medium. Cardboard doesn’t provide the most immersive experience, but it has reached the most people at the lowest price.

The mid-level

Oculus set the spark ablaze for the current firestorm in VR. Founder Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter in 2012 (while he was still a teenager) for the Oculus Rift. It was a virtual reality headset that promised to send you into an immersed 3D space without the motion sickness that had tormented VR participants since the 1990s.

Samsung Gear VR

The Gear VR was the first headset that Oculus launched to the general public. It requires a Samsung phone (Galaxy S6, S7 and Galaxy Note5 and later) for viewing and interaction. The headset costs an additional $100. Gear is considered a more sophisticated consumer device than Cardboard, giving you a mobile 360 experience within a fully enclosed headset.

No, it doesn’t work with an iPhone (and rumour has it that Apple is working on its own headset). The headset immerses the viewer into a 360 view with high level motion tracking (not possible in Cardboard). It has impressive graphics and resolution, especially considering it’s being powered by a smartphone.

It’s a true VR experience for a reasonable price if you already have a Samsung phone. It’s great for passive experiences where you can lounge in a swivel chair and let the story take you away without the worry of cables or connectors.

The upper level

Oculus Rift

If you want to truly feel like you’re in a another dimension, the Oculus Rift is higher performance. In fact it’s so powerful you need a gaming PC in order to use it.  The first time I got into a Rift, I was amazed by how smooth everything ran in real time.

The best example of Rift’s capability is Toybox, produced by Oculus themselves, which I call more of an experience than a game. You find yourself in a virtual gray room with no walls surrounded by interactive toys for you to hold, light, smash, shoot or shrink. With a switch of the wrist, you can go from holding a slingshot to pointing a laser gun. There so little delay that you feel like you are in that universe. Facebook also put a social touch to the experience. Two people in different locations can be logged into this VR playhouse and play together in the same space. Both players are floating blue heads within the gray room and can speak to each other while in the headset.

Rift’s price is steep, running at $600 for the headset and then if you need a powerful PC, that’s another $1,200 to $1,600. It’s the top of the line VR headset that enthusiasts have awaited for so long, but the price may limit any kind of mainstream popularity.

HTC Vive

Vive is more of a “doer” than a “viewer” device. Using hand controls, you can shoot arrows at a virtual rival, play fetch with a dog and go on a mountain expedition.

Tilt Brush (from Google) is Vive’s most popular app and probably its most sough out demo. It allows the user to become a painter, but in 3D space, and with way more than paint. You can paint, sketch, and spray glittery stars in a virtual canvas. It is as cool as it sounds.

Like Oculus Rift, Vive needs a gaming-level PC to operate. It’s not cheap, but it also has action packed apps like this one exclusively for Vive. Though Vive is more heavy duty for making things in VR, it’s also experimenting with storytelling.

Sony Playstation VR

At this writing, the headset isn’t out for release yet (October 2016), but from reviews and resources it’s sure to focus on gaming, as this quote from a press release indicates.

Games Come First
With gamers in mind, PlayStation delivers a new world of unexpected gaming experiences through PlayStation®VR. Play some of the most highly anticipated titles of 2016 on PS VR including an all-new Star Wars™Battlefront™ gaming experience and games like PlayStation®VR Worlds, Golem, and RIGS Mechanized Combat League.
– Sony Playstation VR website

The headset plugs into a Playstation 4 and uses Playstation Camera and LED lights for (apparently) seamless headtracking. If you’re into gaming, and storytelling less so, this might be the headset for you. No need for a smartphone or powerful PC, but from what I can tell this one is more or less limited to gaming experiences.

The experiences

Let’s leave gaming to the gamers and focus on a few of my favorite examples. Each explores the storytelling or experience potential of this hardware. And, okay—at the end we’ll feature a couple of games, as well.

As you may have noticed, some of the headsets above are very basic. They provide only the level of graphics that is available on a modern smart phone. We’ll start with those.

Cardboard/Samsung Gear

The Within app (formerly known as Vrse) supplies a rich diversity of CGI storytelling experiences and poetic documentaries. Chris Milk, director and founder of Within started the company with a goal to immerse audiences and make virtual reality more art than game. 

Milk’s TED talk was less tech specs and more storytelling. He illustrates how VR can seduce an audience into an empathic response because they are in the story as opposed to watching it.

A couple of experiences to watch in Within are shown below in YouTube 360 format, which requires no headset, but which also does not provide stereo visuals. To see them at that level, watch the following on Cardboard or Gear VR instead:

Take Flight is an experience of magical realism by Chris Milk.

Clouds over Sidra is a VR documentary, also by Chris Milk, a narrated piece designed to give you the experience of being there.

Here are some other great experiences for Cardboard and Samsung Gear. Again, these videos  don’t give you the full experience, although Tana Pura, like the above examples, is shown here in YouTube 360 format.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is an audio diary recorded by John Hull, who lost his sight in 1983. He documented “a world beyond sight” using recordings. The teams at Ex Nihilo, ARTE France and AudioGaming used binary sound and real-time 3D to capture Hull’s essence.

Tana Pura is an audio-visual experience that was the brainchild of Mike Tucker with a musical composition by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. It’s a calming journey of colorful lights delicately dancing to the musical score. It’s floaty, spacey and and enticing. It won the 2015 Oculus VR Jam and is still one of my favorites to demo to VR newbies.

If you want to have a private party jam, GrooVR is a fun way to go. It gives you numerous experiences from a space odyssey ride to a Buddha zen temple while you listen to pre-loaded jams or your own Spotify playlist. You float around virtual worlds while listening to music.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Story Studio is the content making hand of Oculus. The company is focusing on how to tell engaging stories with the Rift as its main vehicle. Oculus hired Pixar veteran Saschka Unseld as Creative Director, setting the tone for consumer-friendly storytelling content. Henry and Lost are two strong examples from the studio.

Henry from Oculus Story Studio

In Assent, filmmaker Oscar Raby tells the story of the execution of a group of prisoners captured in Chile. The drama is seen through the perspective of the filmmaker’s father who witnessed the killings in 1973. This immersive autobiographical documentary was made in Unity, a game engine. It exemplifies that personal and serious documentaries have a new way to be told in VR, beyond the camera.

With In the Eyes of the Animals, creative collective Marshmallow Laser Feast explore the ‘artistic interpretation of the sensory perspectives of three species natural to the site’ (England’s forests). CT scanning, photogrammetry and 360 aerial camera were some of the tools used to capture the forest and animals.

According to the collective’s Vimeo page, a dragonfly was used to create the point of view of an animal in the forest. The dragonfly experiences life over 10 times faster than a human. The experience blends the real and virtual into a sensory delight layered in sound, color and gradual movement of common places seen through different eyes.

And Toybox, described above, may not look like so much in the following demo, but it is one of the best truly interactive experiences in the Rift.

The games.

Finally, let’s look at a couple of games that explore what about VR is more than just a more immersive version of regular PC gaming.

From the creators of Monument Valley, Lands End is a puzzle game. It lets you use your eyes and head to move objects that open doors. You can explore caves on the edge of a gorgeous ocean, and slide from one puzzle to the next. For ustwo, the digital production studio, a strong sense of design measures equally to its meditative game strategy. One does not compromise the other. This makes it easy to stay in the game for hours thinking you’ve only been playing for 20 minutes. (This is coming from someone still pencils in crossword puzzles over the weekend.)

Job Simulator is game that infuses slapstick humor with simple tasks. The participant concentrates on how cool it is to use your hands to pick up things in the kitchen within a virtual world. Created by Owlchemy Labs, it’s a good game to demo to skeptics because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. This means you’re in there to enjoy the environment without running against a clock, zombie or point system.

What has struck you most in these early days of VR?

Jacqwi Campbell

Jacqwi Campbell is a freelance Producer and Editor living in San Francisco. She has written and produced multimedia projects for The New Yorker, Monocle Magazine and BBC News. She has a Masters in Film and Media Studies from The New School in New York New City. After graduating, she was selected as a Fulbright Fellow to research women leadership in film in the Middle East. She likes listening to 90s hip hop on the weekends accompanied by a good book by her side.

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