Thoughts on 360-Video and VR – from a Skeptic

Posted on by Larry

Its no secret that I am skeptical of the longevity of 360-Video and VR. Up until this week, I thought that VR was similar to Stereoscopic 3D: an interesting adjunct to filmmaking, but with no long-term impact except for isolated instances.

But, my opinions are evolving and I want to share my latest thinking with you.

It all started with my podcast – DigitalProductionBuzz.com – last week. We devoted the entire show to VR and 360-video; talking with experts and filmmakers who are currently working with this new medium.

NOTE: 360-Video and VR are at different ends of a continuous spectrum. 360-Video puts a camera in the middle of the action and records what happens, while Virtual Reality creates entirely artificial worlds with the viewer an actual participate in the action. In all these cases, the audience is in the middle of the action which surrounds them.

Our guests were excellent, with very interesting things to say. I urge you to listen to the entire show, I suspect you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

Here are the key insights that caught my attention during the show.

INSIGHT #1: STORY-TELLING

“I keep shouting this from the mountain tops,” said Andy Cochrane, Director, The AV Club. “VR is not story-telling, it provides experiences. But,” he continued, “that doesn’t mean there isn’t narrative.”

Oh! Telling stories traditionally requires that we guide the audience to see what we want them to see, hear what we want them to hear and feel what we want them to feel. That step-by-step guidance is essentially impossible in a virtual reality environment. But, Andy’s statement suddenly opened my thinking to possibilities that I hadn’t considered before.

INSIGHT #2: STAGING

“Virtual Reality is much more like traditional theater than film,” said Duncan Shepherd, Creative Director for Duncan Shepherd Films. “Everything happens live. In 360-Video the director doesn’t control the performance, which is typical in film. Instead, the director controls the rehearsal, which is typical in theater.”

Duncan’s comment, when combined with Andy’s insight, totally reset my thinking. If we replace our film-centric story-telling techniques – where the director is intently watching the monitors while every shot is positioned and recorded individually – with one of live theater-in-the-round, the possibilities of 360-Video become much more obvious.

As Duncan and I continued to talk, I realized that in using the analogy of 360-Video-as-live-theater, another staging concept became clear. In video and film, we move the camera to the actors. Wide shots mean one thing, while close-ups mean something else.

But in 360-Video, like live theater, the audience is fixed and can’t move. Instead, we move the actors to the audience; in the case of 360-Video, this means moving the actors to and from the camera.

Now, it is true that in theater-in-the-round, the audience is on the outside looking in, while in VR, the audience is inside looking out, but the narrative ideas of theater can easily apply to VR.

As Duncan concluded: “In fact, it is easier for a theater director to grasp the story-telling and staging techniques of VR than it is for a traditional film or video person.”

INSIGHT #3: AUDIO

“The way I view this,” said Nick Bicanic, Founder of RVLVR Labs, “is that our human eyes can only see about 170 degrees but our ears can hear 360. I believe that we can creatively constrain activity and storytelling points to something that’s far less than 360 degrees.”

His comment made me realize that, in many ways, 360-video can succeed by creating radio plays talking full advantage of ambisonics, while limiting the action to the area in front of the viewer.

NOTE: Surround sound positions audio 360-degrees around the listener, on a horizontal plane. Ambisonics positions audio 360-degrees around the listener and expanded to fill a sphere.

“It’s also worth pointing out,” Nick continued, “that while, if you go to a film festival or a demo of virtual reality equipment, everybody is sitting in spinning chairs and wearing fancy headsets. The fact is today, and it will stay that way for at least a year, maybe 18 months, the vast majority of 360 video experiences are not consumed in spinning chairs, but sitting on the sofa, watching a mobile phone.” And there is only a limited amount we can twist our head.

SUMMARY

This program radically changed my thinking on what 360-Video is and what it takes to make it successful. I’m not saying that 360-Video will replace films as we know them, but, live theater has been around for a long, LONG time. Perhaps 360-Video is the next step in the evolution of the theater? Or is it a new synthesis between live theater and traditional filmmaking?

I look forward to watching how these technologies develop – and to your comments.


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