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.

YouTube jumps into virtual reality with Cardboard support

YouTube is breaking into virtual reality.
The service announced today that its application for Android smartphones now supports Google’s Cardboard headset. This means YouTube users will be able to select a virtual reality video, stick their smartphone into the headset, and kick back as the future of video consumption appears before their eyes.
“If we’ve learned anything in the past 10+ years at YouTube it’s that capturing and sharing videos is a great way to bring people there with you,” YouTube says in a blog post, adding that it’s supporting virtual reality because it “makes the experience of being there even more awesome and immersive.”
The service dipped its toes into virtual reality content earlier this year with 360-degree videos that allowed users to swipe their way around whatever was happening on-screen. This update, combined with the capabilities inherent to the Cardboard headset, promises a more immersive virtual reality experience.
But there’s another, larger change in YouTube’s announcement: The service has made all of its videos available to view in Cardboard. “You can now watch any video using Google Cardboard,” it says, “and experience a kind of virtual movie theater.” This gives YouTube the largest virtual reality content library.
It will face competition, of course. Facebook introduced 360-degree videos to its service earlier this year, and if its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, plus its increasing efforts to provide all the media its users could ever want right from its website, it won’t take long for a full-on virtual reality experience to appear.
Video producers are just as excited about virtual reality. The New York Times introduced its own virtual reality app (which also relies on Cardboard) early this morning. Jon Stewart is reportedly working with Otoy, a startup known for its 360-degree video technologies, as he develops a new series for HBO. The Associated Press also released a virtual reality film with RYOT earlier.
All of which means that some of the world’s most influential publishers are racing to embrace virtual reality while the most popular video service and social network duke it out for control of the new market. If that doesn’t portend a momentous shift in how we watch videos, I don’t know what will.

With Disney-Jaunt investment, the era of VR content is upon us

Thanks to fresh capital and some powerful new partners, cinematic VR leader Jaunt may very well begin exploring a slew of new opportunities to create virtual reality content.

It also makes Jaunt the highest-funded VR content startup (+$100 million), and the first to get a serious investment ($65 million) from a couple of the world’s most influential legacy media companies, Disney and the Madison Square Garden Company. When you combine that with the impending arrival of consumer VR headsets, Jaunt is poised to kick off a new era of VR content — one that goes well beyond video games.

Jaunt’s business is focused on what it calls “an end-to-end solution for creating cinematic VR experiences,” which in regular-people words means it simplifies the process of creating VR video and processing it into virtual environments. But as you’ve probably gathered, creating VR content is a vastly different beast compared to standard films and videos.

How, you ask? For starters, shooting VR video requires 360-degree recording to empower audiences with a key element of VR: the ability to look around and place yourself in the scene. VR content also usually requires some innovative camera technology, like Jaunt’s patent-pending camera system called “NEO” that employs a bevy of image sensors and a slew of lenses to capture the video. And finally, once you’ve captured, you need to have the recordings processed and edited using a system that’s designed specifically for VR content, which Jaunt also provides.

But none of that really matters if there isn’t compelling content for people to consume. In fact, good content is a bigger factor for the rise of VR than VR headset comfortability or consumer friendly pricing.

There are dozens of companies making VR content–from Discovery to Volvo and from Ustwo Games (the studio behind the hyper-successful mobile game Monument Valley) to Legendary Studios–but following this successful series C Jaunt seems poised to put itself at the forefront of cinematic VR. At the moment, the company’s content library offers several VR experiences that are available through the Jaunt VR viewer (which can be found in the App Store), including a climb collaboration with The North Face, a concert with Sir Paul McCartney, and a profoundly frightening VR horror experience called Black Mass.

Jaunt’s content largely centers around short experiences that place viewers in the space of the narrative, and it’s easy to imagine Jaunt jumping into Disney’s rich IP library to bring new stories, characters and spaces into the VR fold. Likewise, Disney — which has long-been involved in developing immersive experiences (like popular theme park attraction Soarin’, for example) — will almost definitely be presented with new VR opportunities for experiential tie-ins with its films and television shows. It may even open the door to theme park experiences outside of the theme parks themselves. (Because why should anyone have to wait until summer vacation to ride Space Mountain, ya know?)

Involvement from fellow Jaunt investor the Madison Square Garden Company, on the other hand, could absolutely signal the intent to continue developing VR experiences around live events, such as the concert with Paul McCartney. Working with the Madison Square Garden Company (which includes MSG, The Beacon Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, the Chicago Theatre, and others) would certainly open up opportunities to capture live events and create experiences around stage productions.

Though Jaunt is heavily involved in what it calls “cinematic VR”, it’s important to keep in mind that feature-length VR experiences are still a ways off. However, Disney and the Madison Square Garden Company’s financial vote of confidence in Jaunt speaks volumes about the future of VR content. While we aren’t going to see a VR Pixar film anytime soon, it seems entirely likely that we’ll see more VR content stemming from the resources (IP and media partnerships) of its new investors.