Notes from SXSW: Day 4
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 16, 2016
Virtual reality is “the next big thing” being explored in earnest at SXSW this year, and the next three days will be primarily dedicated to sessions focused on this emerging medium.
Virtual Reality: From Empathy to Action
As I mentioned yesterday, many social causes are turning to virtual reality as a tool to build empathy and incite action, due to its visceral impact on the viewer. Bryan Mochizuki, the Director of Marketing for the Clinton Global Initiative showed how he used VR to capture the reality of impoverished villages in Africa. With former President Clinton as the VR film’s guide, the experience immerses viewers in this distant part of the world and powerfully connects the viewer to the people in the film. The VR experience proved very successful, leading to increased donations and greater support for the region.
Practically speaking, Mochizuki described VR as “the most unforgiving medium.” It captures everything visible in 360º, making it difficult to set-up lights, hide crew, stage events, and more. Yelena Rachitsky, a VR producer and Head of Education at the Oculus Story Studio, explained that “Actors feel much more phony in VR because the level of authenticity and intimacy feels so much more real.”
Because of these challenges, right now the medium is leaning far more towards documentary or journalistic content, which can avoid more glamorized set-ups and captures the genuineness of real people in real locations even more effectively than traditional film.
At Oculus Story Studio, Rachitsky and her team are working to figure out how interactive storytelling will work in virtual reality. One challenge they’re currently facing is that this immersive, first-person point-of-view doesn’t let the viewer talk to or easily interact with the characters within a VR scene. There’s a wide gap right now between photorealistic non-interactive 360º video experiences and poorly rendered 3D “walk around” experiences that are more like video games in terms of look and interactivity.
Looking towards the future, Rachitsky said that directors will need to be willing to let go of some control and embrace cues from other mediums to guide viewers, such as theatrical techniques in sound and lighting. Mochizuki is excited about educational opportunities: “I’m looking for when educators start to use VR to take students the Sistine Chapel or the Great Wall of China.”
In Pursuit of Presence: Roadmap to True Immersion
The second session of the day explored more of the theoretical aspects to VR and the end goal of “presence” — the sense of actually being in another place. Different kinds of VR approach this in different ways. There are generally two kinds of experiences: local agency, where you simply control where you’re looking, and global agency, where you have interactive control within the experience.
There’s also the question of whether the participant is an active character within the scene (first-person point-of-view) or whether you are simply an observer in the scene (described as “The Swayze Effect” because you’re like a ghost in the scene). Either way, VR producers are learning that photorealism is not essential in order to create the sense of presence. The immersive, 3D experience is transportive enough to fool the brain into thinking you are someplace else and that environment doesn’t need to be realistically rendered.
Mike Woods, the founder of White Rabbit VR argued, “We need to get far away from film thinking and terminology” because VR is its own medium with its own rules. Woods isn’t interested in simply translating filmic experiences into VR. He’s more drawn to unique interactive experiences like Tilt Brush than in passive 360º video.
Time dilation is one of the most interesting elements people are exploring in VR. After a few minutes in virtual reality, participants lose track of how long they’ve been immersed. A 30 minute experience can feel anywhere from 10 minutes long to an hour long, depending on the user and the level of interactivity.
Trying to make sense of the what virtual reality will mean to our world, Jacqueline Bosnjak, founder of VR company Mach 1, suggested that we look back to philosophy. “Thousands of years ago, Plato was talking about all of this with the forms and Plato’s Cave,” she pointed out. “I think he provided a valuable roadmap to understanding virtual reality today.”
Immersive Content: The Future of Storytelling
VR directors Ricardo Casale Laganaro and Gabo Arora led the next session, focused on understanding the perceptual challenges with VR and practical production considerations. Laganaro began the panel by discussing color perception in different cultures throughout history, referencing Homer’s poetic use of language to describe colors that some people couldn’t even perceive. Laganaro’s concern with VR is that there aren’t enough artists who are helping us see what has not been seen before: “When we don’t have storytellers, but just engineers, we fail at what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Arora, who directed the highly-praised VR documentary Clouds Over Sidra, draws inspiration from photojournalists like Susan Sontag and filmmakers like Terrence Malick. As VR directors work to create empathy, Arora warns against shock value and propaganda, which “are numbing and can dull you.”
Sharing practical lessons they’ve learned in VR production, Laganaro suggests that the development process cannot be a linear process, from idea to script to production, but rather a cyclical process that’s always circling back on itself. Both directors urged frequent testing and experimentation, pointing to the near impossibility of verbally “scripting” a VR experience in any comprehensible fashion. There are too many moving pieces and too many places to look, so the process must develop organically.
To help focus both the narrative process and the viewer’s experience, the directors explained the idea of “establishing the north,” which orients the audience in the virtual space. This gives the viewer an anchor point to pivot from and return to. The anchor point can be a static point in the environment or it can be a character which we then follow through the experience.
Five Ways AR Will Change the World
While VR is the major buzzword, the bigger technology long-term will be augmented reality. Both involve immersing the participant in a three-dimensional artificial space, but with VR the entire world is replaced, whereas AR augments the real world with virtual elements. While VR has many entertainment uses, AR will likely be far more practical. Most panelists at the conference predict that AR will be as disruptive of a shift as smart phones, or perhaps even the internet itself.
AR will first be used in business and enterprise settings, creating important overlays for procedures, step-by-step instructions, or remote guidance. The two primary uses are visualization, which will help you see something virtually before you buy it or use it or operate it — this could be a way of trying on clothes virtually, choosing the best size of a TV to buy for your living room, or seeing what a kitchen remodel would look like. The other primary use will be instructional, offering overlaid graphics to walk you through anything from building an IKEA bookcase to performing emergency medical procedures.
There are major technology bottlenecks for AR at the moment, but there are clear roadmaps to provide versatile, affordable AR glasses within the next five to ten years. In the next couple of years, we’ll see uses through smart phone cameras. Microsoft’s HoloLens will release to developers and businesses later this year and MagicLeap is rumored to have a game-changing system that is still under wraps. Google, Apple, Amazon, and other tech giants are all developing their own AR systems.