The headset cometh: A virtual reality content primer

When we talk about VR, we tend to talk in broad strokes. “Experiences,” we call them, as if that term is somehow covers and conveys the depth and disparity that exists between gaming, watching, and interacting with VR content. The reality of virtual reality, however, is not so easily categorized or described.
VR content is the big blanket term that clumsily and imprecisely covers large and vastly divergent portions of the content market as it stands. VR games, immersive video, and virtual cinema all fall under “VR content”, but they’re fundamentally different experiences, possibly appealing to very different portions of a potential mainstream VR market.
Let me get this out of the way: the Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR systems that are coming en masse in Q1 2016 are wildly dissimilar creatures. From hardware to headware, these headsets have commonalities (gyroscopes, accelerometers, lenses) but result in very different experiences, namely with respect to resolution, frame rate, quality of the image, type of content supported by each headset. But alas, that’s another story, which we’ll save for another time.
We’re here to talk about VR content and what there is to do in a headset. Who is VR for and why does it exist? What does VR content look like, where does it come from and end up, and why should anyone want to strap something the size of small(ish) camcorder on her face?
Right now, most VR content falls into two distinct (if broad) categories: video and games.
It’s no secret that a large portion of the early adopter market for VR headsets will be made up of gamers, but gaming is really only part of the story. We’ll get to it, but first let’s take a look at the sleeping giant of VR content: video.
For the time being, video in VR also pretty much falls into two categories: immersive video and virtual cinema. Video, for the purposes of this discussion, is any bit of content that you experience in a VR headset during which your degree of agency is limited to where you’re looking.
In other words, whether it’s immersive or passive, in video content, you can’t control your or interact with your environment directly or physically. In some cases, you may be able to explore it by looking around, but your impact on the world is limited to changing your own perspective. Gaming and interactive content, by way of contrast, is content that allows you to affect and interact with the environment around you, whether its via gaze-based mechanics or controllers of any kind.

Immersive Video

I’ll admit that the first time I saw Paul McCartney in concert, I cried. Paul’s my favorite Beatle, the mastermind behind most of my favorite Beatles songs (including and especially Fool on the Hill), and seeing him live, right in front of me was, to put it simply, breathtaking.
Of course, I wasn’t actually there. I was watching it in a VR headset, from a much better vantage point than any seat could hope to provide. I was right next the piano. If I’d been any closer, I’d have been sitting on the grand piano right in front of him. He was playing Live or Let Die which, while not one of my favorites, was incredible. There was no moment at which I felt just exactly like I was right there in the stadium, surrounded by thousands of people and whisper-distance from Paul McCartney. But then, I also forgot that I wasn’t right there. And that’s what VR is all about.
Immersive video content comes in a number of different forms, though it all stems from the same general principle: putting you into the story or the action.
Companies like Jaunt, Vrse, WEVR, Discovery, and even Jeep and Volvo are creating immersive video content. Right now, for both Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, there are a number of apps and short video experiences that put you anywhere from in the audience at SNL to in a wetsuit, diving into and exploring a shark-riddled shipwreck. There are VR tours of museums and stunning locations, heart-pounding skydiving, flying and racing experiences, and human-centric stories and short films.
Discovery VR is Discovery’s foray into the world of VR and immersive video, and features a number spherical video tie-ins with Discovery Channel IPs like Mythbusters, Gold Rush, Shark Week, and Survivorman. With immersive video, the team behind Discovery VR is experimenting with VR as a new way of telling stories.
On the other end of the immersive video content spectrum is WEVR, the VR software company recently on the receiving end of a big ($10M big) investment from HTC (makers of the Vive headset). WEVR is an open platform VR ecosystem with agnostic software solutions, and it’s looking “enable a content explosion,” in the words of co-found and CEO Neville Spiteri.
Conal Byrne, Discovery’s SVP of Digital Media and one of the leads for Discovery’s VR project calls virtual reality, “the first medium where you can turn a fan or a viewer into a character by just placing them smack-dab in the middle of the story.”
And really, that’s what lies at the core of immersive video: presence.
“You need to think about the audience as being in the experience,” says WEVR’s Spiteri. “You’re not just a viewer…we use the term ‘visitor’.”
Though the idea of creating video around a viewer instead of in front her may seem simple, the effect it has on the way we tell stories is nothing short of ground breaking. “With that simple change,” says Byrne, “to be in control of your POV as you watch video–it’s a seismic change.”
Beyond presence lies another, much more illusive component of immersive video: storytelling. Right now, VR is new and novel, but there will come a time when strapping on a headset and looking at a sunset may come to feel commonplace–something like looking at a beautiful photograph. Enjoyable, stunning even, but somehow stagnant. The compelling element of any video, any experience, is the story. Immersive video will eventually develop and evolve to stretch the boundaries of storytelling, and that presents some exciting opportunities tempered by some very real challenges.
“360-degree video or ‘capture-based VR’ where you’re starting with some aspects of the real world,” says Spiteri, “is proving to be very compelling and creating opportunities for ways of creating and telling video-based stories that have different degrees of interactivity.”
Requiring complex multi-camera/lens rigs, sophisticated editing software, and a team of people who understand the complexities of capturing all 360 degrees of a scene, creating immersive real-world video content is a difficult task. But of course, creating immersive video is much more complex than simply setting up a multi-camera rig that has the technical capabilities to capture 360-degree video.
Creating immersive video content requires recognition that everything around, above, and even below will be captured on camera. Everything is in frame and it’s all a part of the story, and the viewer is going to have the freedom to consume all of it. It’s all a part of the story, even if the action is only happening in a small or partial portion of the scene.
“With traditional storytelling, the director has a pretty high degree of control over what you’re looking at,” says Spiteri. “The art of drawing the user’s attention and directing gaze becomes pretty fundamental to the story and the storytelling process.”
While much attention is given to capture and edit systems, fancy and rugged rigs, and perhaps one of the most crucial factors of storytelling in VR has nothing to do with technology at all. Instead, it’s entirely human.
“We want to make sure that humans don’t get lost in the mix,” says Byrne, “that storytellers, journeymen, pioneers, the people that bring stories to life…don’t get lost.”
In discussing the lush forest-based Survivorman experience on Discovery VR, Byrne says, “It’s one thing to shoot a 360 shot of that forest off the grid in Canada, but when [Survivorman’s] Les Stroud steps out of that forest and starts talking about what he loves about being off the grid and why he does what he does, teaching survival to the viewer, it takes on a whole other meaning and comes alive.”
Like my experience with Paul McCartney, the human element is essential. Who you find in the scene and what they have to share is every bit as important as where you are when you put on the headset.
One of this year’s most stunning examples of immersive video, however, comes from Oculus Story Studio, and features not a human, but a hedgehog. Henry is a short film that follows Henry the hedgehog as he embarks on a journey to find friends.

Unlike much of the immersive video content that exists and is available right now, Henry is an animated VR short and puts the audience inside of Henry’s animated world. The visuals are crisp and stunning, but perhaps one of the most stunning elements of the film is the way that Henry behaves within it.
Henry can look at you. Like, right at you. And while it sounds simple, that is a fundamental paradigm shift. This isn’t just breaking the forth wall, it’s pulling you inside so that the fourth wall is firmly behind you. Henry’s world was designed around the you, the viewer, and you’re a part of it.

Netflix, Hulu, more bringing video content to VR

At its Oculus Connect 2 event this morning, Oculus announced that a slew of popular video apps are coming to VR.

Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Tivo, Twitch and Facebook are all bringing video content to the new Samsung Gear VR headset, which is shipping in November (in time for Black Friday). The move signals just the latest example of how the media industry is building toward a new era for VR content, and follows news of Disney investing $65 million into VR startup Jaunt.

With new content coming to VR devices in droves, it seems as though the hurdle of capturing widespread interest with compelling experiences is rapidly shrinking. The other big obstacles are, of course, cost and comfort, but even those may be less of an issue in light of Samsung’s announcement. The new Gear VR (which is compatible with a Samsung’s 2015 mobile phone lineup) has been significantly overhauled, weighing 22 percent less than its predecessor and sporting a brand new, aggressively affordable price tag: $99.

Though videos have been available in Gear VR before (thanks to VR Cinema), this announcement is significant because it feels like a big bet on entertainment in VR. Samsung Gear VR isn’t going to revolutionize our living rooms just yet, but making vast amounts of high-quality, desirable video content available in a headset is unprecedented.

With Netflix and Hulu alone, a massive catalog of films and television shows is coming to VR. No longer will users need the video files (as was the case with VR Cinema), but they’ll be able to stream content, on-demand in a VR space. Oculus’s partnership with 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate will allow users to access even more films, like X-Men, Life of Pi, Gone Girl, and the Blair Witch Project. And Vimeo, though it boasts less content than YouTube, is famous for cinema-quality video and extremely well-made content.

Netflix VR

A visual diagram of how Netflix will approach VR with its new app for Samsung Gear VR.

To be clear, though, the video content coming from Netflix, Hulu and the others (with the exception of Facebook’s video efforts, which are spherical, 360-degree experiences) will not be immersive in nature. You won’t be able to look around scenes and it probably won’t feel like you’re “in” the movie.

Instead, those VR apps will presumably perform much like the current VR Cinema, which displays the video content on a huge movie or home theater-like screen in front of you (as shown in the image below from Hulu). So, while it won’t feel like you’re a part of the film, it will create a comfortable theater experience, whether you’re using the headset on a plane, in a hotel, on a train, or in the backseat of a car. There’s also the promise that some of these video streaming experiences will become more social, creating environments where you can sit with and interact with your friends in VR (as avatars, of course).

This move to bring a staggering amounts of video content into the VR space is essentially a vote of confidence in the entertainment experience in VR, which says a lot about how people are using Gear VR already, and very possibly speaks to the comfort level of the new headset. After all, betting on users spending hours inside of the headset watching content would be a fool’s errand if the headset feels like wearing a camcorder on your forehead.

Hulu VR shows off what it's new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Hulu VR shows off what it’s new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Facebook introduces 360-degree videos to drum up excitement for Oculus

Facebook has a plan to make its $2 billion acquisition of the Oculus virtual reality company make sense: introducing 360-degree videos to its service.
The company has partnered with Vice, GoPro, and other companies to bring a wide variety of videos, from movie trailers to documentaries, to the format. People can watch them on the Facebook website or via their Android devices “over the coming days,” while iPhone owners have to wait for a few months.
Facebook’s engineers partnered with their counterparts in the Oculus division to create this update, according the company.  This is, according to a report from the Verge, the first time the two divisions have worked together to introduce a new feature for the Facebook website.
The videos aren’t that fun to interact with on a laptop. They often paused when I meant to drag them around to change the view, and they were quite stutter-y. (I am prepared to blame this on the sluggishness of my rural Internet connection, but that doesn’t change how annoying it was to keep seeing that loading wheel.)
Still, there’s some obvious potential here — especially when you think about how these videos must play on a device like the Oculus, which is designed to support immersive content, instead of with a desktop browser and trackpad. Facebook is taking a baby step toward convincing people to give Oculus a try.
Oculus was conceived as a gaming device. Many of its competitors in the virtual reality space are focused on the same category. Coding a virtual reality game is one thing; buying the equipment necessary to create 360-degree videos, and dealing with all the hassles that introduces to the filming process, is another.
Supporting those videos could give Facebook the content it needs to convince non-gamers that virtual reality will matter to them in the short-term. (Insert the obligatory reference to the holodeck, or Louis CK’s bit about Verizon, here.) Games aren’t for everyone, but interactive videos set in the Star Wars universe or offering access to war zones are likely to appeal to a much wider audience.
Not that this type of video is exclusive to Facebook: YouTube introduced 360-degree videos to its service in March. But given Facebook’s efforts to convince media organizations to post directly to its service, whether it’s through Instant Articles or other means, it’s not hard to imagine publications favoring its site.
Then again, Google’s public efforts to enter the virtual reality market center on a few pieces of cardboard onto which people can mount their smartphones. Facebook is, at least in public, making a much bigger bet on the format. I suspect we’ll see more announcements like this one as Oculus establishes itself.

Can Facebook’s video app solve VR’s exposure problem?

News of Facebook working on a new app designed for VR video content, as reported by the WSJ, is as encouraging as it is puzzling.

Facebook made a pretty clear statement about its confidence in the future of VR when it bought Oculus in 2014, but this apparent new move into VR is a decided departure from Oculus-variety VR. (In a post immediately following Facebook’s purchase of Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg even said, “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”)

While immersive virtual reality involving a headset is still miles away from becoming a part of our daily lives, Facebook’s involvement in VR content might be most significant because of its exposure. After all, if Facebook has one indisputable strength: it’s the ability to gather millions and millions of people. And although virtual reality shows up in the news weekly, the real reality is that the vast majority of people have never had a single VR experience. To most, the VR hype is just that: hype. If Facebook can get VR content into the hands of many, it could prove to be a turning point for VR.

See, another big thing many people don’t realize is that VR comes in several different shapes and sizes. While it’s usually the immersive-style, headset-heavy VR that makes the news, the majority of accessible VR content exists on phones and is engineered for viewing without a headset. This content is often referred to as “spherical video” or video that captures an entire 360-degree view of a scene. Spherical videos allow users to “look around” by moving their phones to alter their perspective in a scene.

Discovery VR, which launched at the end of August, features a number of experiences centered around spherical videos. For instance, users can move their phones around in space to take in the entire scene —  be it a shipwreck, Muir woods or Half Moon Bay. Other VR content apps like Vrse, VRstories, and even Volvo’s test drive VR app feature videos that follow the same idea with variations in subject matter and storytelling. But most of the web’s VR content lives on a familiar video giant: YouTube. The hundreds of 360-degree videos on YouTube take you into the cockpits of airplanes and off the sides of literal mountains and allow you to become a part of the action as you control your perspective.

Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the words “virtual reality”, spherical video actually makes up a significant portion of VR content. Consumer VR headsets are still months away (Q1 2016 for Oculus, HTC, and Sony) and something of an unknown. And though Google Cardboard provides a kind of a headset experience, much of the content for Cardboard is actually spherical video that’s been reformatted for Cardboard.

Facebook’s app would, presumably, be quite similar to the existing VR content apps when (if) it’s released, and likely won’t be an incredible innovation on the form of 360-degree video. Even so, Facebook’s development standalone VR video app is essentially an investment in virtual reality outside of the headset. And really, that feels like an investment in a more casual, more frequent, and more commonplace type of virtual reality experience.

Though immersive virtual reality will, in the beginning, belong to gamers and zealots, it will have to find its way into the mainstream market in order to thrive. Developing an app that makes viewing VR content easy, enticing and relevant for an audience that’s never experienced VR may be one solution to VR’s exposure problem. Get the VR bug to bite enough people on a free, low-risk platform and in all likelihood, more immersive experiences (like, ahem, Oculus Rift) will begin taking off.

But of course, Facebook’s VR video app will probably not be just a means to an end. Perhaps we’ll see Facebook rethinking timelines and content delivery. Maybe Facebook will even start dipping into creating original content for this app. Or, more likely, Facebook’s going to create a platform for sharing VR video content socially, trying to capitalize on YouTube’s curatorial weakness.

It doesn’t much matter at this point, though. No matter what the app looks like when it comes out, one thing’s clear: Facebook seems pretty confident that VR is the next frontier, and it’s going to play right into your hands.

LG announces a Google Cardboard–based virtual reality headset

LG’s high-end G3 smartphone was one of the first phones with a pixel-dense 2560 x 1440 display, and now LG is putting those extra pixels to good use. On Monday, LG and Google announced a new virtual reality headset for the G3, called VR for G3, that works with Google Cardboard.

G3-cardboard

Like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s first Cardboard headset, LG’s new virtual reality headsets merely mounts the phone and a pair of biconvex lenses in front of your face. The virtual reality experience uses the device’s built-in screen, sensors, and processors in conjunction with Google’s software to deliver an immersive experience.

According to LG, the VR for G3 headset is based on the original Google Cardboard blueprint, and it works with the Google Cardboard app as well as other Cardboard-compatible apps and games. VR for G3 headsets will be free with purchase of a G3 for a limited time as part of a promotion, which also includes a free version of the VR game Robobliteration.

Aside from the G3’s 538 pixels-per-inch screen, which helps when your eyes are centimeters away from the screen, another major advantage the G3 has over other devices for VR is that its sleep key is mounted on the backside of the smartphone, as opposed to on the righthand side for most other devices, meaning that the button remains accessible even when the handset is mounted. Perhaps LG was thinking about virtual reality even before Google Cardboard was announced.

LG says they haven’t decided whether the VR for G3 will be sold separately or what it would be priced at. The promotion starts this week in Korea, and is eventually headed to the United States.

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Responsive web design is coming to VR

Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR are all trying to get developers excited about building immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences. But as VR is capturing our imaginations, developers are left to wonder whether this new world will once again be dominated by competing and incompatible platforms, just the way mobile and desktop computing have been for so long.

Some developers think they’ve found a solution to this problem. “Remember the old ‘write once, run anywhere’ promise,” asked Google employee and VR enthusiast Boris Smus in a blog post this week, adding: “The web is the closest thing we have to fulfilling it.” Instead of building native apps that just work on one platform or even just one single VR headset, developers could build their VR experiences in HTML, and simply have them run in a browser.

This idea, commonly known as WebVR, is championed by a variety of developers and organizations, with one big proponent being Mozilla. The browser maker launched its own MozVR website for web-based VR experiences last year, and added VR support to the nightly (pre-alpha) builds of Firefox last month. There are also efforts to bring VR to Chrome, and Google launched a website highlighting VR Chrome experiments when it unveiled its own DIY Cardboard VR viewer last year.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

Mozilla is one of the early proponents of web-based VR.

However, so far, these efforts aren’t compatible. “The latest VR wave has barely begun and already the web VR world is fragmented,” wrote Smus, adding: “Case in point, vr.chromeexperiments.com don’t work on Oculus, and mozvr.com demos don’t work in Cardboard.” Developers can now either wait until Google, Mozilla, Oculus and others agree on a common standard — or simply get their own cross-platform approach ready.

That’s exactly what Smus did this week by launching what he calls “responsive WebVR.” The idea: Make HTML-based VR work across headsets, and even without any headset at all. His inspiration? Responsive web design that automatically detects whether a user accesses a site with a desktop or a mobile browser, and optimizes the experience accordingly:

“Responsive web design promises content which automatically adapts to your viewing environment by using fluid layouts, flexible images, proportional grids; a cocktail of modern web technologies. Similarly, WebVR experiences need to work even without VR hardware.”

Smus’ WebVR boilerplate open source project allows developers to create HTML-based VR experiences that work with both Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, as well as with no VR headset at all, using a phone’s gyroscope to allow users to tilt the display to explore worlds. For now, it still requires developers to download a special build of Chrome, but developers should feel encouraged by the promise of cross-platform capabilities — and the potential of web-based experiences that work in an ordinary desktop or mobile browser as well as a VR headset is pretty exciting.

Samsung launches Milk VR service for its Gear VR headset

First there was Milk Music, then Milk Video, and now comes Milk VR: Samsung launched a new VR media service for its Gear VR headsets Tuesday, according to a CNet report. Milk VR offers Gear VR owners free 360-degree videos to explore with their headsets, and Samsung plans to update the service regularly with new content.

Samsung started selling its Gear VR headset earlier this month; the $200 headset is being billed as an “innovator edition” device catering to developers and early adopters. It can only be used with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone, which is being inserted into the headset as a display, but Samsung executives have said that they plan to make compatible versions for other Samsung phones in the future as well. Gear VR has been developed by Samsung in conjunction with Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

Milk VR lives as an app on the Gear VR. There is also a website that seems to preview some of the content, but it doesn’t seem completely launched yet: MilkVR.com currently lets you explore a dozen or so 360-degree videos via compatible browsers.

Interestingly, the site also mentions options to upload user-generated content. In a document called the “Milk VR Format Guide,” it explains that users will be able to upload 360 degree spherical videos, which have to be encoded in MP4 and feature a minimum bit rate of 40Mbps. The document also gives some advice on how to shoot content suited for VR headsets, including this suggestion:

“Steady, stationary 360 cameras work best so people’s heads don’t feel like they are moving when they aren’t.”

Google Maps for Android has a VR mode, thanks to Google Cardboard

Cardboard, Google’s virtual reality hobby that first launched as a kind of gag gift at its developers conference this year, has been making strides in the past month with new SDKs and a section of the Google Play app store specifically for Cardboard-compatible apps. And earlier this week, Google shared a relatively easy to peek at its large cache of Street View images on Cardboard through the Google Maps app.

The feature is somewhat hidden — for now. Quietly announced on Google Plus, the feature is currently only available for Android devices through the Google Maps app. To find it, you merely have to double-tap the look around button when looking at a street view. (The option to enter street view is available on the bottom-screen menu when looking up an address.) Google’s GIF explains the process well:

vr-streetview

Even if you don’t have a [company]Google[/company] Cardboard headset — although it’s possible to purchase one cheaply from companies like Dodocase or even make your own — the feature will probably work on your Android device if you’ve got an up to date version of Google Maps. Double-tapping the look around turned regular street view into binocular street view on my Nexus 5, and moving my phone in space shifted what I was looking at.

One World Trade Center through binocular Google Street view

One World Trade Center through binocular Google Street view

The official Cardboard has supported some Street View locations since it launched, and there are several ways to get Street View working on Oculus Rift. Because Street View images can be so compelling and there is such a wealth of them, it could be one of the big sources of content in the early years of virtual reality.