Why VR content investment in ‘a galaxy far, far away’ is just the beginning

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB studio recently released virtual reality content for the official Star Wars mobile apps, marking the first time the beloved sci-fi property has dabbled in VR content. It definitely won’t be the last, either.

The new experience, called Jakku Spy, is designed for use with Google Cardboard. Jakku Spy is an experience in installments, and today marks the first installment’s release. New pieces of the Jakku Spy puzzle will be uploaded every few days leading up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release on December 18.

The first VR experience itself is short: You’re treated to the signature Star Wars crawl, which informs you that you’re a spy for the Resistance on the desert planet Jakku where you’ll be on the lookout for enemy activity. Then, you find yourself standing atop a massive sloping sand dune, surrounded by high temperatures and hot, dry wind. There’s plenty to see, but you’ll scarcely have time to inspect before a speeder whizzes past, weapons ablaze. A moment later, a few bleeps and bloops grab your attention and you’ll turn to find a looking small, helpful, and very round BB-8 with a message for you.

That’s it, really. It’s just a taste. It’s a chance to step onto Jakku, to look around, to take ownership of your own perspective within a created world. And for now, that’s how VR exists in our world — the “real” one.

Jakku Spy is made to be intentionally limited and short. It’s supplemental. It’s a bite-sized experienced, contained in something that many of us have access to: a smartphone. It requires no special equipment, no high-powered computer, no costly headset and no wires. Google Cardboard was designed around the core principle of accessibility. Headsets are often around $30 (though special edition Star Wars Google Cardboard headsets themed after BB-8, R2-D2, Kylo Ren, and a Stormtrooper will be for sale in-store at Verizon retail locations) and most Google Cardboard apps and experiences themselves are free.

In many ways, Google Cardboard is the world’s necessary first step into VR. One of virtual reality’s biggest challenges on the road to mainstream acceptance is access. You can’t know how utterly different a VR experience is until you’ve tried it for yourself, and words simply fall flat. Trying to describe what a VR experience is like to someone who has never tried it is like trying to explain the way the wind feels or what it’s like to see the ocean for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, Google Cardboard isn’t anywhere close to the best VR has to offer us. It’s light years away from Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive and even Samsung’s Gear VR.

But this, Google Cardboard, is our necessary first step. And the involvement of what is arguably the world’s largest film franchise is nothing if not a clear indicator of the future of VR and the extent to which Disney and Lucasfilm understand that for now, it’s important that everyone be able to experience Jakku for themselves, without the aid of early adopter equipment.

There’s more coming in VR. More content. More headsets. More frames per second, more time behind the lenses, more sound. Just more. There will, inevitably, be a time when we have long, standalone experiences in the headset. The technology is progressing, the demand is growing. But for now, VR experiences are supplemental. They’re short, they add depth and immersion to existing IP’s and experiences. There are opportunities for VR storytelling, but for now, introducing viewers to familiar characters and worlds through a new lens has proven an effective first step into VR.

In the announcement this morning, Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media/VP, Advanced Development group said,

“ILMxLAB’s whole foundation and mission is about creating immersive entertainment, and that includes virtual reality. We think a lot of people are going to experience virtual reality in Google Cardboard for the first time with Jakku Spy. It’s a great opportunity because there’s this familiar content — characters and vehicles that you’ve seen in trailers — but you’re seeing it in a completely new way.”

Jakku Spy is meant to draw you in, to build anticipation for The Force Awakens, to introduce you to Jakku so that you feel like you know it and you must see it for yourself in theaters. And it’s working. Jakku Spy, much like most of the content in the Star Wars app, is meant to build the world of Star Wars. It isn’t long, and it isn’t standalone.

It doesn’t provide hours of interaction in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a start. And if the last paragraph of the announcement is any indication, that’s just what Jakku Spy is: Ultimately, Jakku Spy is the first step into a larger (virtual reality) world for Lucasfilm and Star Wars,” said the release. “And that’s something to be truly excited about.” 

Amazon Prime Instant gets Selma, James Bond and Star Trek

Amazon Prime customers will get access to a bunch of big Hollywood movies over the next couple of months via Prime Instant, thanks to an extended agreement between the e-commerce giant and premium cable network Epix.

The deal includes rights to new releases like Selma, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 as well as some classics, including the Star Trek and James Bond movies.

All of the movies come from Paramount, Lionsgate and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which co-own Epix. Amazon first struck a deal with Epix in 2012. At the time, that deal was seen as a blow to Netflix, which previously was the only subscription service with access to Epix movies. However, these days, Epix has deals with both companies, which means that film buffs without a Prime subscription will get to see the same movies on Netflix as well.

This post was corrected on 2/24 to clarify that the deal includes Star Trek movies, not Star Wars movies.

The first intergalactic war will be started by spoilers

While I was living in South Africa, I bought a limited edition DVD of Star Wars: A New Hope that featured the original theatrical release of the film. A friend and I were working on a parody of the movie at the time, and we wanted it before George Lucas had pasted those ridiculous computer animations all over the screen.

The theatrical release was amazing, crisp and clean, and it was like watching it for the first time. I moved back to the U.S. in 2007 and decided to watch the movie again — I try to screen the original trilogy at least once per year—but when I popped the DVD into my player it didn’t work. It was protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM), essentially a digital lock that prevented me from watching the film in my “zone” in the U.S.

I remain upset about this. In fact, I’m looking at the movie on my table right now and I’m still pissed off that George Lucas’s crowning glory sits right before me and I can’t watch it. I paid good money for the DVD in South Africa. I am not, in short, a pirate. But I refuse to buy the film again. If I tried to break the digital lock myself, I would make myself a criminal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (especially if I shared my solution.) I can now only use the DVD as a coaster.

This is a sad state of affairs. Yet DRM explains many of the strange decisions that can turn a willing customer into a pirate. These locks encrypt media to prevent others from copying or distributing them in an unauthorized manner. When pirated copies are shared on social media, ISPs and intermediaries have to immediately respond to requests to take down that material, which usually come from the big three record labels or the big six movie houses.

The entertainment industry doesn’t like having to request the take-down and the intermediaries don’t like having to comply. Twitter, for example, received 9,199 notices in the first half of 2014. Plus, ordinary people get swept up in the mess with little due process. The website Chilling Effects, which documents trends in take-down notices, reported that the feminist blog Eschergirls received multiple take down requests for spotlighting the work of a comic book artist who depicted women in degrading poses. The locks can even create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by criminals.

What about the creative artists, the people who make the content that we enjoy? The internet has brought amazing opportunities for creative artists but they fall victim to rights restrictions too, and not in the way you think. Each new YouTube hit is accompanied by a concomitant sneaky method of rights-holders to restrict copying and punish those they suspect to be evil wrongdoers. Artists suffer as a result because they now have one more barrier sitting between them and their audience.

Cory Doctorow Information Doesn't Want to Be Free coverCory Doctorow has been tackling this issue for a long time. In 2003, he released his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom online for free. I downloaded it, but I couldn’t enjoy reading an entire novel on a crappy CRT monitor. Doctorow went on to grow the site Boing Boing into a multimillion dollar enterprise and to write several successful novels, including the prescient bestseller Little Brother. All the while he has maintained his side-hobby as a digital activist, co-founding the Open Rights Group in his adopted home in the U.K.

In his new book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s), Doctorow provides a thoughtful treatise on creativity in the digital age. The book is part how-to manual for aspiring creative professionals and part indictment of the entertainment industry.

This is a strange mix, but it doesn’t take long to understand why he combined the two. As he writes:

“The single most important thing you need in order to have a career in the arts is persistence. The second most important thing you need is talent. The third most important thing is a ground in how the online world works. It’s that important.”

You can no longer just start a blog and hope to sell a book about it. Your chances are about as good as winning the lottery. Similarly, if you do create a viable product, you can still be steamrolled by the entertainment industry or numerous intermediaries who do not have your best interests at heart.

Intermediaries are important, according to Doctorow, because they affect your ability to negotiate with companies and the people who stand between you and your audience. It grows more complicated once you factor in social media, where content is being created and distributed at “unimaginable scale.” YouTube users now upload 100 hours of video every single minute. While a portion of that content might be pirated, the vast majority involves home recordings of babies taking their first steps or kids teaching tricks on their skateboards. People use these tools to explore their interests and communicate—it would be silly to allow a few bad apples to take down the entire system.

Doctorow’s solution comes in two parts. First, we shouldn’t allow legislation to be passed that criminalizes even more people for copying. This means stopping draconian legislation like SIPA, SOPA, and ACTA, and preventing companies from worming their terms into massive trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Copying is here to stay.

The second solution is for entertainment groups to develop better blanket licenses. These licenses currently allow radio DJs to play whatever music they like — they pay a blanket license to a collecting society like ASCAP that is negotiated in advance. Doctorow contends that the entertainment industry should be proactive and develop new licenses based on digital analytics that strike a better balance between artists, intermediaries, and distributors:

“If there’s one single characteristic that defines today’s technology world, it’s analytics… A collecting society run with the smarts of Google and the transparency of GNU/Linux has the potential to see to it that payments are fairly dispersed.”

A new, dynamic collective licensing society could in theory solve some of the problems in the music industry, and it’s better than accusing kids and their mothers of being pirates, because copying is only going to get easier as computing power expands. But the devil is in the details. For example, artists claim that services like Pandora and Spotify don’t pay them, but those companies are often paying quite a lot for each song played. The record labels just keep those royalties because of fine print in the contracts with artists instead of passing the royalties along.

Intermingled with the history of copyright and DRM in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free are several choice tidbits of advice that any aspiring artist should read. To promote the book, the author commissioned several creative artists to provide their tips about how to survive in the digital age.

What became of my Star Wars parody? Nothing, but it certainly didn’t help that I could only use my DVD as a coaster. It’s not as if these problems are going away, either. Last year, I traveled to Krakow, Poland, for work and struck up a conversation about Game of Thrones with a college student. He explained that he was able to download an episode of the series the day after it aired—with Polish subtitles already added to the video. I don’t have cable, so I was not able to buy the season until eight months later.

What’s worse, I couldn’t even talk to the student about the show because of spoilers. This is an absurd situation. I don’t fault the college student at all—he probably couldn’t afford to shell out $40 and likely didn’t have the patience to wait—but I was more than willing to pay.

I can see it now: in October 2015, we make first contact. Our alien visitors, to break the ice, ask us our thoughts about the ending of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Cue intergalactic war.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa out now from Unnamed Press. He fights for digital rights at the international organization Access. Follow him on Twitter @dejiridoo.

Star Wars meets the mouse: Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion

Disney is acquiring George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, including the “Star Wars” franchise and associated technology, for $4.05 billion. “Star Wars Episode 7” is slated to be released in 2015, with more films to follow every two to three years afterwards.

5 Questions With…Star Wars Uncut Creator Casey Pugh

Casey Pugh made history this summer when Star Wars Uncut the first independent website to win an Emmy award. Today, he talks about how the importance of scale and mobile platforms, as well as whether or not Star Wars Uncut could be financially viable.

Star Wars Uncut Is Ready for Watching (Online)

Last year, former Vimeo developer Casey Pugh invited the Internet to help him remake Star Wars, one 15-second clip at a time. One Emmy nomination and 904 videos later, it’s now possible to see a whole new A New Hope, created entirely by fans.

Star Wait Strikes Back From 2002

Director Mike Rotman celebrated Star Wars Day this year by uploading his documentary feature Star Wait as a series. Filmed in 2002, the show consists mostly of interviews filmed with Star Wars enthusiasts waiting in line to see Episode II.

As Star Wars: Uncut Nears Completion, What Does the Future Hold?

Ever wished you could have helped make Star Wars IV: A New Hope? Well, that was the dream Casey Pugh, an early employee of Vimeo who now works for Boxee, made come alive for indie filmmakers in the online video world. Using the Vimeo API, Pugh’s Star Wars Uncut project has brought together an international group of fans to recreate George Lucas’s seminal film in 15 second increments — and after seven months online, it’s 98 percent complete.

Star Wars Uncut – Scene 400 from r2witco on Vimeo.

Read More about As Star Wars: Uncut Nears Completion, What Does the Future Hold?