IN THE FUTURE...
WE'LL BE WATCHING FILMS IN
WORDS: JAMES WHITE
Virtual reality' is one of those exciting futurist terms that have been bandied about for more than 20 years, but that intervening period has yet to deliver a single truly immersive experience, let alone a Star Trek-like holodeck. In some cases, bold claims weren't supported by technological breakthroughs; in others, the equipment needed proved too expensive to gain traction with consumers. But in an age where smartphones boast bright and crisp screens, 3D has returned with a vengeance to cinemas and cameras are getting ever more sophisticated and accessible, it looks like virtual reality displays will finally become, well, a reality.
EARLY STUDIO ATTEMPTS TO CLAMBER ABOARD THE BANDWAGON MAY NEED POLISHING UP – WARNER BROS.’ COCKEYED INTO THE STORM OFFERING PROVIDED A PARTICULARLY EGREGIOUS EXAMPLE AT THIS YEAR’S COMIC-CON – BUT HOLLYWOOD CLEARLY SEES THE POTENTIAL.Why? Because companies both big and small are pushing towards more immersive delivery systems. One of the more noteworthy is the Oculus Rift. It's the handiwork of a prodigiously gifted 21 year-old called Palmer Luckey and his company, Oculus VR. Originally attempting to improve gaming displays, the Californian hit on the idea of using current technology and cheap components to make a new head-mounted display. His work then caught the attention of Id Software co-founder John Carmack, who had been pushing his team in a similar direction.
The first iteration of the Oculus Rift – imagine a pair of ski goggles and headphones that have been mashed together – debuted at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo, generating lots of interest and lots more investment offers. In March, Facebook bought Luckey's company for $400m in cash and $1.6 billion in Facebook stock – and that's before the final product had gone on sale to the public. Clearly the tech world thinks that something will happen with this technology, particularly as other companies, such as Samsung, are developing their own take.
So what do Oculus and the systems like it offer? In short, wrap-around 3D footage that the wearer can view from any direction, with audio to match, that simulates the experience of being in a filmed world. Unlike previous attempts at virtual reality, the current focus is on exploring real-world environments – although with the current state of CG effects, expect pixelated creatures and environments to play just as big a part in the future. Early studio attempts to clamber aboard the bandwagon may need polishing up – Warner Bros.' cockeyed Into The Storm offering provided a particularly egregious example at this year's Comic-Con – but Hollywood clearly sees the potential. If 4K or IMAX and Dolby's Atmos surround sound system represent the current gold standard for the cinematic viewing experience, imagine being completely surrounded by a film's world, with the ability to look in any direction and see something happening.
Jaunt's prototype VR camera (left), and in action shooting short World War II film The Mission - shot specifically for virtual reality.
Yet having the ability to display such footage means nothing without a reliable, quality supply of it, and that has been a further stumbling block in the past. Now, however, companies such as Jaunt aim to fix that. Jaunt has created a filming rig that acts less like a traditional camera, or even a 3D setup, and more like a computer brain with a series of eyes. It's oddly redolent of a piece of Rebel Alliance kit circa the Battle of Hoth: a grey shape studded with camera lenses. The real breakthrough is inside the box. "They're just lenses," explains Jaunt VP of Content Scott Broock after treating Empire to a demonstration using Jaunt footage displayed inside an Oculus Rift prototype headset. "There's no traditional photography because that would generate a flat image that you could cement on a sphere, but there'd be no depth. This is giving you sensation of being closer to the action of whatever has been shot."
"WHEN WE SHOWED MARK ROMANEK THE DEMO, HE JUST GOT IT RIGHT AWAY AND WAS PASSIONATE ABOUT THE FACT THAT IT WAS BRAND NEW MEDIA." SCOTT BROOCK, JAUNT VP OF CONTENTJaunt's boxy system works by taking the data those lenses collect and deriving the real-world physics of it to create an all-encompassing worldview. It's as if a camera was given a brain to match its eyes, while a tetrahedral microphone picks up the sound happening all around the device. It may sound complicated, but Jaunt aims to simplify its use: the device features a simple 'on-off' switch and the system does all the processing for you, delivering a video file that can then be used on editing rigs and displayed on anything that can handle the output. "To us, they're just displays," says Broock. "We're platform agnostic." The company is looking to stay out of any possible battle between companies pushing displays – which has the potential to launch a VHS-versus-Betamax-style war for supremacy – and simply work on developing the filming technology further.
It's early days for the technology – Jaunt has only been around for a few months – but it's easy to get caught up in the excitement. The potential is already apparent to filmmakers like Mark Romanek, signed up as a director and de facto advisor to the company. "When we showed him the demo, he just got it right away and was passionate about the fact that it was brand new media," says Broock. "There aren't any rules yet. This is still an experiment. It's not a replacement for the literal film. It's not for television, it stands on its own. To force conventions on it like lower frame rates doesn't work. And the old blocking rules for filmmaking don't apply because everything is recorded."
Broock believes it will take time before movies are shot using the system, but that's definitely the plan for the years ahead. Right now, the tech has the feeling of those early homebrew computer clubs that launched the Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniaks and Bill Gates of the world; they're only scratching the surface of what these gadgets can do. Broock wants to see it applied to the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking too, so Guillermo del Toro or Peter Jackson could take you on a guided tour of their beautifully crafted sets, enabling viewers to absorb detail from all angles. And it's not just professional filmmakers. As with current camera technology, the devices will eventually become available for everyone to use, even if the idea of immersive pratfall videos on YouTube doesn't necessarily fill the heart with joy.
Will virtual reality be the next commercial step for IMAX cinemas?
And what of the multiplexes? Could this new technology end up competing with cinemas, removing the need to spend money on tickets and treats when you can watch something just as immersive in your own home, minus the chatty mobile phone user and loud popcorn gobbler? Broock isn't so sure. "I don't think the theatre is dead, it just adapts," he says. "When you go to see a movie now, like Gravity, you see it on IMAX with Dolby Atmos [and] the cost of a Barco or Sony projector is hundreds of thousands of dollars. The average person will not have that in their home. And we're not at the point where Atmos is ubiquitous. You're still going because it's an experience where you get the best of everything. Buy why is that not always the case? Why can't the theatre be the place you go to have the most premium experience with this technology?" He outlines an intriguing possible future where your $20 ticket will get you access to an 8K goggle and a super-high resolution, genuinely immersive experience.
YOUR $20 TICKET WILL GET YOU ACCESS TO AN 8K GOGGLE AND A SUPER-HIGH RESOLUTION, GENUINELY IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE.The eyes and ears can be taken care of right now, but it'll take longer for the systems to start replicating other sensory input like the touch-based haptics technology. Even that's already happening to a limited degree in theme parks and with the D-Box motion-enhanced chairs. As these technologies slowly converge, the cinema could finally become what science-fiction has promised for years: a fully immersive experience allowing you to enter the world of a movie. Yes, even something by Michael Bay (with relevant health warnings).
There's scope for social media to become involved for those who want it – sharing chunks of video or even entering virtual worlds together from different viewpoints – and the accelerative effect of YouTube ubiquity or a Facebook app has the potential to catapult the tech into every household. As development proceeds, the chunky headsets should eventually be replaced by something more like Google Glass, or even contact lenses with the information. Perhaps that holodeck idea doesn't seem quite so far-fetched after all.