Back in September, I traveled to Amsterdam to check out new tools relating to VR and 360 production and post. As a producer based in Paris, France, I have been working in the virtual reality part of the business for over two years. While IBC took place in September, the information I have to share is still quite relevant.
I saw some very cool technology at the show regarding VR and 360 video, especially within the cinematic VR niche. And niche is the perfect word — I see the market slightly narrowing after the wave of hype that happened a couple of years ago. Personally, I don’t think the public has been reached yet, but pardon my French pessimism. Let’s take a look…
One new range of products I found amazing were the Obsidian cameras from manufacturer KanDao. This Chinese brand has a smart product line with their 3D/360 cameras. Starting with the Obsidian Go, they reach pro cinematic levels with the Obsidian R (for Resolution, which is 8K per eye) and the Obsidian S (for speed, which you can capture at 120fps). It offers a small radial form factor, only six eyes to produce very smooth stereoscopy, with very a high resolution per eye, which is one of the keys to reaching a good feeling of immersion using a HMD.
Kandao’s features are promising, including handling 6DoF with depth map generation. To me, this is the future of cinematic VR producing — you will be able to have more freedom as the viewer, translating slightly your point of view to see behind objects with natural parallax distortion in realtime! Let me call it “extended” stereoscopic 360.
I can’t speak about professional 360 cameras without also mentioning the Ozo from Nokia. Considered by users to be the first pro VR camera, the Ozo+ version launched this year with a new ISP and offers astonishing new features, especially when you transfer your shots in the Ozo creator tool, which is in version 2.1.
Powerful tools, like highlights and shadow recovery, haze removal, auto stabilization and better denoising. are there to improve the overall image quality. Another big thing on the Nokia booth was the version 2.0 of the Ozo Live system. Yes, you can now webcast your live event in stereoscopic 360 with a 4K-per-eye resolution! And you can simply use a (boosted) laptop to do it! All the VR tools from Nokia are part of what they call Ozo Reality, an integrated ecosystem where you can create, deliver and experience cinematic VR.
When you talk about VR post you have to talk about stitching — assembling all sources to obtain a 360 image. As a French-educated man, you know I have to complain somehow: I hate stitching. And I often yell at these guys who shoot at wrong camera positions. Spending hours (and money) dealing with seam lines is not my tasse de thé.
A few months before IBC, I found my grace: Mistika VR from SGO. Well known for their color grading tool Mistika Ultima (which is one of the finest in stereoscopic), SGO launched a stitching tool for 360 video. Fantastic results. Fantastic development team.
In this very intuitive tool, you can stitch sources of almost all existing cameras and rigs available on the market now, from Samsung gear 360 to Jaunt. With amazing optical flow algorithms, seam line fine adjustments, color matching and many other features, it is to me by far the best tool for outputing a clean, seamless equirectangular image. And the upcoming Mistika VR 3D for stitching stereoscopic sources is very promising. You know what? Thanks to Mistika VR, the stitching process could be fun. Even for me.
In general, optical flow is a huge improvement for stitching, and we can find this parameter in the Kandao Studio stitching tool (designed only for Obsidian cameras), for instance. When you’re happy with your stitch, you can then edit, color grade and maybe add VFX and interactivity in order to bring a really good experience to viewers.
Today, Adobe CC takes the lead of the editing scene with their specific 360 tools, such as their contextual viewer. But the big hit was when they acquired the Skybox plugins suite from Mettle, which will be integrated natively in the next Adobe CC version (for Premiere and After Effects).
With this set of tools you can easily manipulate your equirectangular sources, do tripod removal, sky replacements and all the invisible effects that were tricky to do without Skybox. You can then add contextual 360 effects like text, blur, transitions, greenscreen, and much more, in monoscopic and even stereoscopic mode. All this while viewing your timeline directly in your Oculus Rift and in realtime! And, incredibly it’s working — I use these tools all day long.
So let’s talk about the Mettle team. Created by two artists back in 1992, they joined the VR movement three years ago with the Skybox suite. They understood they had to bring tech to creative people. As a result they made smart tools with very well-designed GUI. For instance, look at Mettle’s new Mantra creative toolset for After Effects and Premiere. It is incredible to work with because you get the power to create very artistic designs in 360 in Adobe CC. And if you’re a solid VFX tech, wait for their Volumatrix depth-related VR FX software tools. Working in collaboration with Facebook, Mettle will launch the next big tool to do VFX in 3D/360 environments using camera-generated depth maps. It will open new awesome possibilities for content creators.
You know, the current main issue in cinematic 360 is image quality. Of course, we could talk about resolution or pixel per eye, but I think we should focus on color grading. This task is very creative — bringing emotions to the viewers. For me, the best 360 color grading tool to achieve these goals with uncompromised quality is Scratch VR from Assimilate. Beautiful. Formidable. Scratch is a very powerful color grading system, always on top in terms of technology. Now that they’ve added VR capabilities, you can color grade your stereoscopic equirectangular sources as easily as with normal sources. My favorite is mask repeater function, so you can naturally handle masks even in the back seam, which is almost impossible in other color grading tools. And you can also view your results directly in your HMD.
At NAB 2017, they provided Scratch VR Z, an integrated workflow in collaboration with ZCam, the manufacturer of the S1 and S1 Pro. In this workflow you can, for instance, stitch sources directly into Scratch and do super high-quality color grading with realtime live streaming, along with logo insertion, greenscreen capabilities, layouts, etc. Crazy. For finishing, the Scratch VR output module is also very useful, enabling you to render your result in ProRes even on Windows, or in 10-bit H264, and many other formats.
Finishing and Distribution
So your cinematic VR experience is finished (you’ll notice I’ve skipped the sound part of the process, but since it’s not the part I work on I will not speak about this essential stage). But maybe you want to add some interactivity for a better user experience?
I visited IBC’s Future Zone to talk with the Liquid Cinema team. What is it? Simply, it’s a set of tools enabling you to enhance your cinematic VR experience. One important word is storytelling — with liquid cinema you can add an interactive layer to your story. The first tool needed is the authoring application where you drop your sources, which can be movies, stills, 360 and 2D stuff. Then create and enjoy.
For example, you can add graphic layers and enable the viewers gaze function, create multibranching scenarios based on intelligent timelines, play with forced perspective features so your viewer never misses an important thing… you must to try it.
The second part of the suite is about VR distribution. As a content creator you want your experience to be on all existing platforms, HMDs, channels … not an easy feat, but with Liquid Cinema it’s possible. Their player is compatible with Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, iOS, Android, Daydream and more. It’s coming to Apple TV soon.
The third part of the suite is the management of your content. Liquid Cinema has a CMS tool, which is very simple and allows changes, like geoblocking, easily, and provides useful analytics tools like heat map. And you can use your Vimeo pro account as a CDN if needed. Perfect.
Also in the Future Zone was the igloo from IglooVision. This is one of the best “social” ways to experience cinematic VR that I have ever seen. Enter this room with your friends and you can watch 360 all around and finish your drink (try this with an HMD). Comfortable, isn’t it? You can also use it as a “shared VR production suite” by connecting Adobe Premiere or your favorite tool directly to the system. Boom. You have now an immersive 360-degree monitor around you and your post production team.
So that was my journey into the VR stuff of IBC 2017. Of course, this is a non-exhaustive list of tools, with nothing about sound (which is very important in VR), but it’s my personal choice. Period.
One last thing: VR people. I have met a lot of enthusiastic, smart, interesting and happy women and men, helping content producers like me to push their creative limits. So thanks to all of them and see ya.
Paris-based Alexandre Regeffe is a 25-year veteran of TV and film. He is currently VR post production manager at Neotopy, a VR studio, as well as a VR effects specialist working on After Effects and the entire Adobe suite. His specialty is cinematic VR post workflows.