By Tim Street
When most video creators hear the words “virtual reality,” they either glaze over or ask themselves, “Virtual reality? I make videos, not video games. Why should I care about VR?”
However, it’s not just video game developers getting in on VR. Entertainment companies as big as Twentieth Century Fox have taken a stab at VR content — but what does the space mean for the majority of content creators out there, the ones who might not yet have imagined it as worth delving into?
Virtual reality is the hot new tech play for the entertainment industry, as well as companies like
Facebook, Google, Sony, and Microsoft, and now investors. They all know that VR is a new canvas to create spectacles, stories, and immersion like never before, taking viewers places they can’t normally go. Imagine sitting next to Jack Nicholson during a Lakers game or having the best seat at the Super Bowl. Unless you’re some kind of media mogul who runs your own empire, you can’t really afford to do that. Soon, with VR, those types of experiences will be available at a cost everyday people can afford.
Cosmo Scharf, co-founder of the VR production company Visionary VR, has this to say about VR’s immersive value: “VR is the next, and perhaps ultimate, medium for entertainment. Filmmakers have been refining their craft for over a century, trying to immerse the viewer in their story and world. With VR, content creators now have a medium in which they can transport the viewer directly into the world, to share our dreams with other people.”
One of the most immersive VR demos to date is for NBC’s “The Voice.” Once inside, you are facing a studio audience and someone starts to play music, but they are behind you and you can’t see them. Other people are talking, and you look to your side to see three of the celebrity judges from the show. Eventually, your chair spins around, and you realize you are watching a performance on “The Voice” while sitting next to the other judges in Blake Shelton’s judging seat.
While “The Voice” VR demo isn’t storytelling, it is an amazing spectacle transporting you to an unattainable location (not to mention it cross-promotes with a major TV network). Keep in mind that whenever new technology happens in entertainment, spectacle comes first, then storytelling follows. So what about storytelling?
Major studios are keeping a close eye on VR, and not just for movie marketing and promotion like they’ve done for feature films such as “Pacific Rim,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and “Wild.” The “Pacific Rim” VR promo let viewers take on a ride battle with a giant Kaiju, and the “Sleepy Hollow” promo brought viewers the excitement of getting their heads cut off by the Headless Horseman.
At Sundance this year, studios were showing off VR demos such as one of Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in the Twentieth Century Fox film “Wild.” Fox has even built a VR test lab that they refer to internally as “The Bunker.” They’ve brought in co-inventor of the Red Camera, Ted Schilowitz, who is now Twentieth Century Fox’s futurist, and are strong on developing story for VR based on what they have discovered in their test lab. “In our investigation at Fox, it’s clear that VR is a powerful platform for delivering entertainment, giving you a stage where you have an infinite amount of space to tell stories,” says Schilowitz.
Telling stories presents its own set of challenges in web video, as TV show formats and short films have not been able to build audiences online the same way vloggers have. Yet when it comes to VR, there’s even more of a challenge in that the production tools and vernacular for producing story-based content itself are still being developed. One of the companies working to create a tool set for creators is Visionary VR. In this video, they highlight the issues of telling a story in VR and present ways to get past them:
“The VR industry today bares a striking resemblance to the computer industry in the 1970s, back when most people had no idea what computers were or what they would even be used for. A lot of people are asking the same questions about VR, but we now have the opportunity to invent the answers. Today in 2015, there are so many low hanging fruits, so many opportunities to pioneer VR software and create experiences that were impossible until now,” says Scharf.
But what makes VR such a worthy storytelling medium? If you want, you can tell stories on cocktail napkins — but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Michael Kintner, CEO and founder of VR enabler 360Heros, believes in VR storytelling so much that he’s invented an end-to-end workflow for shooting, stitching, and distributing the medium. Kintner feels that VR brings something more to the table than your average white rectangle, or average rectangular screen, for that matter, broadening that field of view both literally and figuratively.
“The goal with any video production or piece of content is to share a story with people. VR takes that same exchange of content and makes it more enjoyable for both the filmmaker and the viewer. As viewers, we are no longer limited to seeing a space from one perspective. Now filmmakers can drop us into an experience virtually and let us explore it for ourselves. It’s that freedom and opportunity to learn and explore that makes VR content so exciting,” says Kintner.
In the past, there’s been very limited distribution for VR headset gear, but now with the launch of several new types of VR viewers that allow consumers to use their smartphones to download VR content and then drop them into the new headsets, distribution is posed to take off. Even airlines are starting to offer VR gear to passengers.
With all eyes on Oculus Rift, the Kickstarter company Facebook purchased for $2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2015, there promises to be a watershed moment for virtual reality in the relatively near future. The big question, however, is come Christmas, will there be content to go with all the new VR headsets? Much like the early days of iTunes and YouTube, this is where independent content creators have an advantage of acting fast, creating compelling content, and building an audience before more major content players jump in. The big difference between VR and the early days of the other platforms is that virtual reality already has a payment system in place thanks to mobile phone marketplaces and consumers who are already used to buying apps. This time, a new medium is launching and the cash registers are already in place with Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store.
Fox’s Schilowitz ultimately believes that the medium will take off due to its merit, framing new terrain as the essence of storytelling itself. “When you play in this space, you will see the potential this new medium has, and it’s not just about games,” he says. “It’s about taking people to places they’ve never been able to go, and isn’t that what storytelling is all about?”
This article is part of VideoInk’s “VI Goes VR” special issue, which explores the current opportunity and future potential in virtual reality for the entertainment industry.
For more insights on all things VR, join us at our special event in Los Angeles on February 26, where we will discuss and showcase what VR has to offer.