Tag Archives: VR

Z Cam, Assimilate reduce price of S1 VR camera/Scratch VR bundle

The Z Cam S1 VR camera/WonderStitch/Assimilate Scratch VR Z bundle, an integrated VR production workflow offering, is now $3,999, down from $4,999.

The Z Cam S1/Scratch VR Z bundle provides acquisition via Z Cam’s S1 pro VR camera, stitching via the WonderStitch software and a streamlined VR post workflow via Assimilate’s realtime Scratch VR Z tools.

Here are some details:
If streaming live 360 from the Z Cam S1 through Scratch VR Z, users can take advantage of realtime features such as inserting/composting graphics/text overlays, including animations, and keying for elements like greenscreen — all streaming live to Facebook Live 360.

Scratch VR Z can be used to do live camera preview, prior to shooting with the S1. During the shoot, Scratch VR Z is used for dailies and data management, including metadata. It’s a direct connect to the PC and then to the camera via a high-speed Ethernet port. Stitching of the imagery is done in Z Cam’s WonderStitch, now integrated into Scratch VR Z, then comes traditional editing, color grading, compositing, multichannel audio from the S1 or adding external ambisonic sound, finishing and then publishing to all final online or stand-alone 360 platforms.

The Z Cam S1/Scratch VR Z bundle is available now.

Editing 360 video with Lenovo’s Explorer WMR headset

By Mike McCarthy

Microsoft has released its Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) platform as part of the Fall Creator’s Update to Windows 10. This platform allows users to experience a variety of immersive experiences, and thankfully there are now many WMR headsets available from many familiar names in the hardware business. One of those is from Lenovo who kindly sent me their Explorer WMR headset to test on my Thinkpad P71. This provided me with a complete VR experience on their hardware.

On November 15, Microsoft’s WMR released beta support for SteamVR on WMR devices. This allows WMR headsets to be used in applications that are compatible with SteamVR. For example, the newest release of Adobe Premiere Pro (CC 2018, or V.12.0) uses SteamVR for 360 video preview.

My goal for this article was to see if I could preview my 360 videos in a Lenovo headset while editing in Premiere, especially now that I had new 360 footage from my GoPro Fusion camera. I also provide some comparisons to the Oculus Rift which I reviewed for postPerspective in October.

There are a number of advantages to the WMR options, including lower prices and hardware requirements, higher image resolution and simpler setup. Oculus and HTC’s VR-Ready requirements have always been a bit excessive for 360 video, because unlike true 3D VR there is no 3D rendering involved when playing back footage from a fixed perspective. But would it work? No one seemed to know if it would, but Lenovo was willing to let me try.

The first step is to get your installation of Windows 10 upgraded with the Fall Creators Update. This includes integrated support for Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Once installed, you can plug in the single USB3 cable and HDMI port and Windows will automatically configure the device and its drivers for you. You will also need to install Valve’s Steam application and SteamVR, which adds support for VR content. The next step is to find Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR in the Steam store, which is a free installation. Once you confirm that the headset is functioning in WMR and then in SteamVR, open up Premiere Pro and test it out.

Working in Premiere Pro
Within Premiere Pro, preview and playback worked immediately within my existing immersive project. I watched footage captured with my Samsung Gear 360 and GoPro Fusion cameras. The files played, and the increased performance within the new version of the software is noticeable. My 4K and 5K 30fps content worked great, but my new 3Kp60 content only played when Mercury Playback was set to software-only, which disabled most of the new Immersive Video effects. In CUDA mode, I could hold down the right arrow and watch it progress in slow motion, but pressing the space bar caused the VR preview to freeze even though it played fine on the laptop monitor. The 60p content played fine in the Rift, so this appears to be an issue specific to WMR. Hopefully, that will be addressed in a software update in the near future.

The motion controllers were visible in the interface and allow you to scrub the timeline, but I still had to use space bar to start and stop playback. One issue that arose was that the mouse cursor is hidden when the display is snapped down into place over my eyes. I had to tip it up out of the way each time I wanted to make a change, instead of just peeking under it, which is a lot of snapping up and down for the headset.

I found the WMR experience to be slightly less solid than the Oculus system. It would occasionally lag on the tracking for a couple of frames, causing the image to visibly jump. This may be due to the integrated tracking instead of dedicated external cameras. The boundary system is a visual distraction, so I would recommend disabling it if you are primarily using it for 360 video — because it doesn’t require moving much within your space. The setup on the WMR is better; it is much easier and has lower requirements and fewer ports needed. The resolution is higher than the Oculus Rift I had tested, (1440×1440 per eye instead of 1080×1200), so I wanted to see how much of a difference that would make. The Explorer also has a narrower field of view (105 degrees instead of 110), which I wouldn’t expect to make a difference, but I think it did.

By my calculations, the increased resolution should allow you to resolve a 5K sphere, compared to the 3.9K resolution available from the Rift — 1440pixels/105degrees*360 vs 1080pixels /110degrees*360. You will also want a pair of headphones or earbuds to plug into the headset so the audio tracks with your head (compared to your computer speakers, which are fixed).

The Feel of the Headset
The headset is designed very differently from the Rift, and the display can be tipped up out of the way while the headband is still on. It is also way easier to put on and remove, but a bit less comfortable to keep on for longer periods of time. The headband has to be on tight enough to hold the display in front of your eyes, since it doesn’t rest on your face, and the cabling has to slide through a clip on the headband when you fold the display upward. And since you have to fold the display upward to use the mouse, it is a frequent annoyance. But between the motion controllers and the keyboard, you can navigate and playback while the headset is on.

Using the Microsoft WMR lobby interface was an interesting experience, but I’m not sure if it’s going to catch on. SteamVR’s lobby experience isn’t much better, but Steam does offer a lot more content for its users. I anticipate Steam will be the dominant software platform based on the fact that most hardware vendors have support for it — HTC, Oculus, WMR. The fact that Adobe chose SteamVR to support their immersive preview experience is why these new WMR headsets work in Premiere Pro without any further software updates needed on their part. (Adobe doesn’t officially support this configuration yet, hence the “beta” designation in SteamVR, but besides 60p playback, I was very happy.) Hopefully we will only see further increased support and integration between the various hardware and software options in the future.

Summing Up
Currently, the Lenovo Explorer and the Oculus Rift are both priced the same at $399 — I say currently because prices have been fluctuating, so investigate thoroughly. So which one is better? Well, neither is a clear winner. Each has its own strengths. The Rift has more specific hardware requirements and lower total resolution. The Explorer requires Windows 10, but will work on a wider array of systems. The Rift is probably better for periods of extended use, while I would recommend the Explorer if you are going to be doing something that involves taking it on and off all the time (like tweaking effects settings in Adobe apps). Large fixed installations may offer a better user experience with the Rift or Vive on a powerful GPU, but most laptop users will probably have an easier time with the Explorer (no external camera to calibrate and fewer ports needed).

Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

Behind the Title: Julia Siemón

NAME: Julia Siemón

COMPANY: New York City-based GIMIK/Julia Siemón

We strive to achieve beauty through design with a primary focus on 3D motion content creation. We help clients solve creative challenges and constantly evolve by staying ahead of technology trends. I am currently working on developing content using Oculus VR.
A Creative (Designer, Animator and Director)

Everything. I wear many hats at my job, whether it is art direction, character animation or pitching. Being a creative means you have to be able to adapt to the needs of the project and pick up where someone else left off.

Budgets. Having to always be mindful of budget and time. Also snacks. My snack game is the best in town.

Constantly discovering new ways to achieve our creative goals. Whether it’s through the use of a new technology or inspiration. Randomly seeing my work on TV, a subway or on Instagram is also pretty awesome.

Dealing with finances, writing up invoices and collecting. Having to “hound” clients to collect is never fun, but unfortunately frequently comes with the territory.

I find my most productive times for creating are between 10am and 2pm, and from 5pm to 7pm. I would love to nap between 3-4pm. I think that would expand my productive time to 9pm. Just that one-hour nap would do wonders. I guess my favorite time of day is when I get to climb back into bed.

I teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, so I would either teach full time and/or design video games. If it wasn’t design related, I would work with plants, helping people set up and manage gardens in their backyards to produce enough fresh vegetables and herbs for their families. Or I’d run a travel blog.

At age three, I drew a baby pram with one continuous stroke. From that moment on my mother knew I was to become an artist, so my art education began early on. However, I always gravitated towards new technology. By combining my visual talent with new media I was able to find a career path that is always surprising and rewarding.

Over the summer I worked with creative production studio Hey Beautiful Jerk on three Yahoo Fantasy Football spots. It is the type of project I love working — it included a mixture of the absurd and comic elements where the client goes for something out of their comfort zone and I get to play with Maxon Cinema 4D.

The spots each included a purple hue over everything to tie in the Yahoo brand color. I worked on several backgrounds and most of the character animation. While I did various backdrops and animations for all three spots, my favorite is called Glory Year. For this piece I created, textured and animated the floating brains and the futuristic city. I had a very limited time to create a The Fifth Element-inspired cityscape in Cinema 4D, and relied heavily on ready made models I found online, combining and adjusting them to get the desired look. I also added a sky highway to help illustrate the future. A lot of work for a half a second.

I would have to say the CCTV-9 IDs I did with branding and design studio Trollbäck+Company a few years back. We did six IDs for the CCTV9 documentary channel promoting their new cube logo. I designed and animated CCTV ID Electronica, which was meant to reflect the energy of Chinese cities. The spots won an international BDA award that year. Cinema 4D was the perfect tool for this project; it allowed me to explore multiple creative directions fast and easy. I relied heavily on the Mograph module in Cinema 4D to give the CCTV cube the vibrancy and spirit of a Chinese metropolis.

My camera, Google maps/satellites and my Wacom tablet.

Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

It varies greatly depending on my mood. I listen to anything from Leonard Cohen and Imogen Heap to Tool and Smashing Pumpkins, with a bit of Zedd/Deadmau5 thrown in.

I’ve been running a mini farm out in New Jersey for four years now; it helps me to clear my mind and stay close to nature and our roots as an agrarian society. I’ve also gotten into food preservation. Both have been very therapeutic. However, when the stress is too great even for dehydrated kale chips and apples I try to take time off to travel.

Rogue takes us on VR/360 tour of Supermodel Closets

Rogue is a NYC-based creative boutique that specializes in high-end production and post for film, advertising and digital. Since its founding two years ago, executive creative director, Alex MacLean and his team have produced a large body of work providing color grading, finishing and visual effects for clients such as HBO, Vogue, Google, Vice, Fader and more. For the past three years MacLean has also been at the forefront of VR/360 content for narratives and advertising.

MacLean recently wrapped up post production on four five-minute episodes of 360-degree tours of Supermodel Closets. The series is a project of Conde Nast Entertainment and Vogue for Vogue’s 125th anniversary. If you’re into fashion, this VR tour gives you a glimpse at what supermodels wear in their daily lives. Viewers can look up, down and all around to feel immersed in the closet of each model as she shows her favorite fashions and shares the stories behind their most prized pieces.


Tours include the closets of Lily Aldridge, Cindy Crawford, Kendall Jenner  and
Amber Valletta.

MacLean worked with director Julina Tatlock, who is a co-founder and CEO of 30 Ninjas, a digital entertainment company that develops, writes and produces VR, multi-platform and interactive content. Rogue and 30 Ninjas worked together to determine the best workflow for the series. “I always think it’s best practice to collaborate with the directors, DPs and/or production companies in advance of a VR shoot to sort out any technical issues and pre-plan the most efficient production process from shoot to edit, stitching through all the steps of post-production,” reports MacLean. “Foresight is everything; it saves a lot of time, money, and frustration for everyone, especially when working in VR, as well as 3D.”

According to MacLean, they worked with a new camera format, the YI Halo camera, which is designed for professional VR data acquisition. “I often turn to the Assimilate team to discuss the format issues because they always support the latest camera formats in their Scratch VR tools. This worked well again because I needed to define an efficient VR and 3D workflow that would accommodate the conforming, color grading, creating of visual effects and the finishing of a massive amount of data at 6.7K x 6.7K resolution.”


The Post
“The post production process began by downloading 30 Ninjas’ editorial, stitched footage from the cloud to ingest into our MacBook Pro workstations to do the conform at 6K x 6K,” explains MacLean. “Organized data management is a critical step in our workflow, and Scratch VR is a champ at that. We were simultaneously doing the post for more than one episode, as well as other projects within the studio, so data efficiency is key.”

“We then moved the conformed raw 6.7K x 6.7K raw footage to our HP Z840 workstations to do the color grading, visual effects, compositing and finishing. You really need powerful workstations when working at this resolution and with this much data,” reports MacLean. “Spherical VR/360 imagery requires focused concentration, and then we’re basically doing everything twice when working in 3D. For these episodes, and for all VR/360 projects, we create a lat/long that breaks out the left eye and right eye into two spherical images. We then replicate the work from one eye to the next, and color correct any variances. The result is seamless color grading.


“We’re essentially using the headset as a creative tool with Scratch VR, because we can work in realtime in an immersive environment and see the exact results of work in each step of the post process,” he continues. “This is especially useful when doing any additional compositing, such as clean-up for artifacts that may have been missed or adding or subtracting data. Working in realtime eases the stress and time of doing a new composite of 360 data for the left eye and right eye 3D.”

Playback of content in the studio is very important to MacLean and team, and he calls the choice of multiple headsets another piece to the VR/360 puzzle. “The VR/3D content can look different in each headset so we need to determine a mid-point aesthetic look that displays well in each headset. We have our own playback black box that we use to preview the color grading and visual effects, before committing to rendering. And then we do a final QC review of the content, and for these episodes we did so in Google Daydream (untethered), HTV Live (tethered) and the Oculus Rift (tethered).”

MacLean sees rendering as one of their biggest challenges. “It’s really imperative to be diligent throughout all the internal and client reviews prior to rendering. It requires being very organized in your workflow from production through finishing, and a solid QC check. Content at 6K x 6K, VR/360 and 3D means extremely large files and numerous hours of rendering, so we want to restrict re-rendering as much as possible.”

Review: GoPro Fusion 360 camera

By Mike McCarthy

I finally got the opportunity to try out the GoPro Fusion camera I have had my eye on since the company first revealed it in April. The $700 camera uses two offset fish-eye lenses to shoot 360 video and stills, while recording ambisonic audio from four microphones in the waterproof unit. It can shoot a 5K video sphere at 30fps, or a 3K sphere at 60fps for higher motion content at reduced resolution. It records dual 190-degree fish-eye perspectives encoded in H.264 to separate MicroSD cards, with four tracks of audio. The rest of the magic comes in the form of GoPro’s newest application Fusion Studio.

Internally, the unit is recording dual 45Mb H.264 files to two separate MicroSD cards, with accompanying audio and metadata assets. This would be a logistical challenge to deal with manually, copying the cards into folders, sorting and syncing them, stitching them together and dealing with the audio. But with GoPro’s new Fusion Studio app, most of this is taken care of for you. Simply plug-in the camera and it will automatically access the footage, and let you preview and select what parts of which clips you want processed into stitched 360 footage or flattened video files.

It also processes the multi-channel audio into ambisonic B-Format tracks, or standard stereo if desired. The app is a bit limited in user-control functionality, but what it does do it does very well. My main complaint is that I can’t find a way to manually set the output filename, but I can rename the exports in Windows once they have been rendered. Trying to process the same source file into multiple outputs is challenging for the same reason.

Setting Recorded Resolution (Per Lens) Processed Resolution (Equirectangular)
5Kp30 2704×2624 4992×2496
3Kp60 1568×1504 2880×1440
Stills 3104×3000 5760×2880

With the Samsung Gear 360, I researched five different ways to stitch the footage, because I wasn’t satisfied with the included app. Most of those will also work with Fusion footage, and you can read about those options here, but they aren’t really necessary when you have Fusion Studio.

You can choose between H.264, Cineform or ProRes, your equirectangular output resolution and ambisonic or stereo audio. That gives you pretty much every option you should need to process your footage. There is also a “Beta” option to stabilize your footage, which once I got used to it, I really liked. It should be thought of more as a “remove rotation” option since it’s not for stabilizing out sharp motions — which still leave motion blur — but for maintaining the viewer’s perspective even if the camera rotates in unexpected ways. Processing was about 6x run-time on my Lenovo Thinkpad P71 laptop, so a 10-minute clip would take an hour to stitch to 360.

The footage itself looks good, higher quality than my Gear 360, and the 60p stuff is much smoother, which is to be expected. While good VR experiences require 90fps to be rendered to the display to avoid motion sickness that does not necessarily mean that 30fps content is a problem. When rendering the viewer’s perspective, the same frame can be sampled three times, shifting the image as they move their head, even from a single source frame. That said, 60p source content does give smoother results than the 30p footage I am used to watching in VR, but 60p did give me more issues during editorial. I had to disable CUDA acceleration in Adobe Premiere Pro to get Transmit to work with the WMR headset.

Once you have your footage processed in Fusion Studio, it can be edited in Premiere Pro — like any other 360 footage — but the audio can be handled a bit differently. Exporting as stereo will follow the usual workflow, but selecting ambisonic will give you a special spatially aware audio file. Premiere can use this in a 4-track multi-channel sequence to line up the spatial audio with the direction you are looking in VR, and if exported correctly, YouTube can do the same thing for your viewers.

In the Trees
Most GoPro products are intended for use capturing action moments and unusual situations in extreme environments (which is why they are waterproof and fairly resilient), so I wanted to study the camera in its “native habitat.” The most extreme thing I do these days is work on ropes courses, high up in trees or telephone poles. So I took the camera out to a ropes course that I help out with, curious to see how the recording at height would translate into the 360 video experience.

Ropes courses are usually challenging to photograph because of the scale involved. When you are zoomed out far enough to see the entire element, you can’t see any detail, or if you are so zoomed in close enough to see faces, you have no good concept of how high up they are — 360 photography is helpful in that it is designed to be panned through when viewed flat. This allows you to give the viewer a better sense of the scale, and they can still see the details of the individual elements or people climbing. And in VR, you should have a better feel for the height involved.

I had the Fusion camera and Fusion Grip extendable tripod handle, as well as my Hero6 kit, which included an adhesive helmet mount. Since I was going to be working at heights and didn’t want to drop the camera, the first thing I did was rig up a tether system. A short piece of 2mm cord fit through a slot in the bottom of the center post and a triple fisherman knot made a secure loop. The cord fit out the bottom of the tripod when it was closed, allowing me to connect it to a shock-absorbing lanyard, which was clipped to my harness. This also allowed me to dangle the camera from a cord for a free-floating perspective. I also stuck the quick release base to my climbing helmet, and was ready to go.

I shot segments in both 30p and 60p, depending on how I had the camera mounted, using higher frame rates for the more dynamic shots. I was worried that the helmet mount would be too close, since GoPro recommends keeping the Fusion at least 20cm away from what it is filming, but the helmet wasn’t too bad. Another inch or two would shrink it significantly from the camera’s perspective, similar to my tripod issue with the Gear 360.

I always climbed up with the camera mounted on my helmet and then switched it to the Fusion Grip to record the guy climbing up behind me and my rappel. Hanging the camera from a cord, even 30-feet below me, worked much better than I expected. It put GoPro’s stabilization feature to the test, but it worked fantastically. With the camera rotating freely, the perspective is static, although you can see the seam lines constantly rotating around you. When I am holding the Fusion Grip, the extended pole is completely invisible to the camera, giving you what GoPro has dubbed “Angel View.” It is as if the viewer is floating freely next to the subject, especially when viewed in VR.

Because I have ways to view 360 video in VR, and because I don’t mind panning around on a flat screen view, I am less excited personally in GoPro’s OverCapture functionality, but I recognize it is a useful feature that will greater extend the use cases for this 360 camera. It is designed for people using the Fusion as a more flexible camera to produce flat content, instead of to produce VR content. I edited together a couple OverCapture shots intercut with footage from my regular Hero6 to demonstrate how that would work.

Ambisonic Audio
The other new option that Fusion brings to the table is ambisonic audio. Editing ambisonics works in Premiere Pro using a 4-track multi-channel sequence. The main workflow kink here is that you have to manually override the audio settings every time you import a new clip with ambisonic audio in order to set the audio channels to Adaptive with a single timeline clip. Turn on Monitor Ambisonics by right clicking in the monitor panel and match the Pan, Tilt, and Roll in the Panner-Ambisonics effect to the values in your VR Rotate Sphere effect (note that they are listed in a different order) and your audio should match the video perspective.

When exporting an MP4 in the audio panel, set Channels to 4.0 and check the Audio is Ambisonics box. From what I can see, the Fusion Studio conversion process compensates for changes in perspective, including “stabilization” when processing the raw recorded audio for Ambisonic exports, so you only have to match changes you make in your Premiere sequence.

While I could have intercut the footage at both settings together into a 5Kp60 timeline, I ended up creating two separate 360 videos. This also makes it clear to the viewer which shots were 5K/p30 and which were recorded at 3K/p60. They are both available on YouTube, and I recommend watching them in VR for the full effect. But be warned that they are recorded at heights up to 80 feet up, so it may be uncomfortable for some people to watch.

Summing Up
GoPro’s Fusion camera is not the first 360 camera on the market, but it brings more pixels and higher frame rates than most of its direct competitors, and more importantly it has the software package to assist users in the transition to processing 360 video footage. It also supports ambisonic audio and offers the OverCapture functionality for generating more traditional flat GoPro content.

I found it to be easier to mount and shoot with than my earlier 360 camera experiences, and it is far easier to get the footage ready to edit and view using GoPro’s Fusion Studio program. The Stabilize feature totally changes how I shoot 360 videos, giving me much more flexibility in rotating the camera during movements. And most importantly, I am much happier with the resulting footage that I get when shooting with it.

Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

Behind the Title: Start VR Producer Ela Topcuoglu

NAME: Ela Topcuoglu

COMPANY: Start VR (@Start_VR)

Start VR is a full-service production studio (with offices in Sydney, Australia and Marina Del Rey, California) specializing in immersive and interactive cinematic entertainment. The studio brings expertise in entertainment and technology together with feature film quality visuals with interactive content, creating original and branded narrative experiences in VR.

Development Executive and Producer

I am in charge of expanding Start VR’s business in North America. That entails developing strategic partnerships and increasing business development in the entertainment, film and technology sectors.

I am also responsible for finding partners for our original content slate as well as seeking existing IP that would fit perfectly in VR. I also develop relationships with brands and advertising agencies to create branded content. Beyond business development, I also help produce the projects that we move forward with.

The title comes with the responsibility of convincing people to invest in something that is constantly evolving, which is the biggest challenge. My job also requires me to be very creative in coming up with a native language to this new medium. I have to wear many hats to ensure that we create the best experiences out there.

My favorite part of the job is that I get to wear lots of different hats. Being in the emerging field of VR, everyday is different. I don’t have a traditional 9-to-5 office job and I am constantly moving and hustling to set up business meetings and stay updated on the latest industry trends.

Also, being in the ever-evolving technology field, I learn something new almost everyday, which is extremely essential to my professional growth.

Convincing people to invest in virtual reality and seeing its incredible potential. That usually changes once they experience truly immersive VR, but regardless, selling the future is difficult.

My favorite part of the day is the morning. I start my day with a much-needed shot of Nespresso, get caught up on emails, take a look at my schedule and take a quick breather before I jump right into the madness.

If I wasn’t working in VR, I would be investing my time in learning more about artificial intelligence (AI) and use that to advance medicine/health and education.

I loved entertaining people from a very young age, and I was always looking for an outlet to do that, so the entertainment business was the perfect fit. There is nothing like watching someone’s reaction to a great piece of content. Virtual reality is the ultimate entertainment outlet and I knew that I wanted to create experiences that left people with the same awe reaction that I had the moment I experienced it.

I worked and assisted in the business and legal affairs department at Media Rights Capital and had the opportunity to work on amazing TV projects, including House of Cards, Baby Driver and Ozark.

Awake: First Contact

The project that I am most proud of to date is the project that I am currently producing at Start VR. It’s called Awake: First Contact. It was a project I read about and said, “I want to work on that.”

I am in incredibly proud that I get to work on a virtual reality project that is pushing the boundaries of the medium both technically and creatively.

My phone, laptop and speakers.

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn

Yes, especially if I’m working on a pitch deck. It really keeps me in the moment. I usually listen to my favorite DJ mixes on Soundcloud. It really depends on my vibe that day.

I have recently started surfing, so that is my outlet at the moment. I also meditate regularly. It’s also important for me to make sure that I am always learning something new and unrelated to my industry.

Tackling VR storytelling challenges with spatial audio

By Matthew Bobb

From virtual reality experiences for brands to top film franchises, VR is making a big splash in entertainment and evolving the way creators tell stories. But, as with any medium and its production, bringing a narrative to life is no easy feat, especially when it’s immersive. VR comes with its own set of challenges unique to the platform’s capacity to completely transport viewers into another world and replicate reality.

Making high-quality immersive experiences, especially for a film franchise, is extremely challenging. Creators must place the viewer into a storyline crafted by the studios and properly guide them through the experience in a way that allows them to fully grasp the narrative. One emerging strategy is to emphasize audio — specifically, 360 spatial audio. VR offers a sense of presence no other medium today can offer. Spatial audio offers an auditory presence that augments a VR experience, amplifying its emotional effects.

My background as audio director for VR experiences includes top film franchises such as Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema’s IT: Float — A Cinematic VR Experience, The Conjuring 2 — Experience Enfield VR 360, Annabelle: Creation VR — Bee’s Room, and the upcoming Greatest Showman VR experience for 20th Century Fox. In the emerging world of VR, I have seen production teams encounter numerous challenges that call for creative solutions. For some of the most critical storytelling moments, it’s crucial for creators to understand the power of spatial audio and its potential to solve some of the most prevalent challenges that arise in VR production.

Most content creators — even some of those involved in VR filmmaking — don’t fully know what 360 spatial audio is or how its implementation within VR can elevate an experience. With any new medium, there are early adopters who are passionate about the process. As the next wave of VR filmmakers emerge, they will need to be informed about the benefits of spatial audio.

Guiding Viewers
Spatial audio is an incredible tool that helps make a VR experience feel believable. It can present sound from several locations, which allows viewers to identify their position within a virtual space in relation to the surrounding environment. With the ability to provide location-based sound from any direction and distance, spatial audio can then be used to produce directional auditory cues that grasp the viewer’s attention and coerce them to look in a certain direction.

VR is still unfamiliar territory for a lot of people, and the viewing process isn’t as straightforward as a 2D film or game, so dropping viewers into an experience can leave them feeling lost and overwhelmed. Inexperienced viewers are also more apprehensive and rarely move around or turn their heads while in a headset. Spatial audio cues prompting them to move or look in a specific direction are critical, steering them to instinctively react and move naturally. On Annabelle: Creation VR — Bee’s Room, viewers go into the experience knowing it’s from the horror genre and may be hesitant to look around. We strategically used audio cues, such as footsteps, slamming doors and a record player that mysteriously turns on and off, to encourage viewers to turn their head toward the sound and the chilling visuals that await.

Lacking Footage
Spatial audio can also be a solution for challenging scene transitions, or when there is a dearth of visuals to work with in a sequence. Well-crafted aural cues can paint a picture in a viewer’s mind without bombarding the experience with visuals that are often unnecessary.

A big challenge when creating VR experiences for beloved film franchises is the need for the VR production team to work in tandem with the film’s production team, making recording time extremely limited. When working on IT: Float, we were faced with the challenge of having a time constraint for shooting Pennywise the Clown. Consequently, there was not an abundance of footage of him to place in the promotional VR experience. Beyond a lack of footage, they also didn’t want to give away the notorious clown’s much-anticipated appearance before the film’s theatrical release. The solution to that production challenge was spatial audio. Pennywise’s voice was strategically used to lead the experience and guide viewers throughout the sewer tunnels, heightening the suspense while also providing the illusion that he was surrounding the viewer.

Avoiding Visual Overkill
Similar to film and video games, sound is half of the experience in VR. With the unique perspective the medium offers, creators no longer have to fully rely on a visually-heavy narrative, which can overwhelm the viewer. Instead, audio can take on a bigger role in the production process and make the project a well-rounded sensory experience. In VR, it’s important for creators to leverage sensory stimulation beyond visuals to guide viewers through a story and authentically replicate reality.

As VR storytellers, we are reimagining ways to immerse viewer in new worlds. It is crucial for us to leverage the power of audio to smooth out bumps in the road and deliver a vivid sense of physical presence unique to this medium.

Matthew Bobb is the CEO of the full-service audio company Spacewalk Sound. He is a spatial audio expert whose work can be seen in top VR experiences for major film franchises.

Editing 360 Video in VR (Part 2)

By Mike McCarthy

In the last article I wrote on this topic, I looked at the options for shooting 360-degree video footage, and what it takes to get footage recorded on a Gear 360 ready to review and edit on a VR-enabled system. The remaining steps in the workflow will be similar regardless of which camera you are using.

Previewing your work is important so, if you have a VR headset you will want to make sure it is installed and functioning with your editing software. I will be basing this article on using an Oculus Rift to view my work in Adobe Premiere Pro 11.1.2 on a Thinkpad P71 with an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU. Premiere requires an extra set of plugins to interface to the Rift headset. Adobe acquired Mettle’s Skybox VR Player plugin back in June, and has made it available to Creative Cloud users upon request, which you can do here.

Skybox VR player

Skybox can project the Adobe UI to the Rift, as well as the output, so you could leave the headset on when making adjustments, but I have not found that to be as useful as I had hoped. Another option is to use the GoPro VR Player plugin to send the Adobe Transmit output to the Rift, which can be downloaded for free here (use the 3.0 version or above). I found this to have slightly better playback performance, but fewer options (no UI projection, for example). Adobe is expected to integrate much of this functionality into the next release of Premiere, which should remove the need for most of the current plugins and increase the overall functionality.

Once our VR editing system is ready to go, we need to look at the footage we have. In the case of the Gear 360, the dual spherical image file recorded by the camera is not directly usable in most applications and needs to be processed to generate a single equirectangular projection, stitching the images from both cameras into a single continuous view.

There are a number of ways to do this. One option is to use the application Samsung packages with the camera: Action Director 360. You can download the original version here, but will need the activation code that came with the camera in order to use it. Upon import, the software automatically processes the original stills and video into equirectangular 2:1 H.264 files. Instead of exporting from that application, I pull the temp files that it generates on media import, and use them in Premiere. (C:\Users\[Username]\Documents\CyberLink\ActionDirector\1.0\360) is where they should be located by default. While this is the simplest solution for PC users, it introduces an extra transcoding step to H.264 (after the initial H.265 recording), and I frequently encountered an issue where there was a black hexagon in the middle of the stitched image.

Action Director

Activating Automatic Angle Compensation in the Preferences->Editing panel gets around this bug, while trying to stabilize your footage to some degree. I later discovered that Samsung had released a separate Version 2 of Action Director available for Windows or Mac, which solves this issue. But I couldn’t get the stitched files to work directly in the Adobe apps, so I had to export them, which was yet another layer of video compression. You will need a Samsung activation code that came with the Gear 360 to use any of the versions, and both versions took twice as long to stitch a clip as its run time on my P71 laptop.

An option that gives you more control over the stitching process is to do it in After Effects. Adobe’s recent acquisition of Mettle’s SkyBox VR toolset makes this much easier, but it is still a process. Currently you have to manually request and install your copy of the plugins as a Creative Cloud subscriber. There are three separate installers, and while this stitching process only requires Skybox Suite AE, I would install both the AE and Premiere Pro versions for use in later steps, as well as the Skybox VR player if you have an HMD to preview with. Once you have them installed, you can use the Skybox Converter effect in After Effects to convert from the Gear 360’s fisheye files to the equirectangular assets that Premiere requires for editing VR.

Unfortunately, Samsung’s format is not one of the default conversions supported by the effect, so it requires a little more creativity. The two sensor images have to be cropped into separate comps and with plugin applied to each of them. Setting the Input to fisheye and the output to equirectangular for each image will give the desired distortion. A feathered mask applied to the circle to adjust the seam, and the overlap can be adjusted with the FOV and re-orient camera values.

Since this can be challenging to setup, I have posted an AE template that is already configured for footage from the Gear 360. The included directions should be easy to follow, and the projection, overlap and stitch can be further tweaked by adjusting the position, rotation and mask settings in the sub-comps, and the re-orientation values in the Skybox Converter effects. Hopefully, once you find the correct adjustments for your individual camera, they should remain the same for all of your footage, unless you want to mask around an object crossing the stitch boundary. More info on those types of fixes can be found here. It took me five minutes to export 60 seconds of 360 video using this approach, and there is no stabilization or other automatic image analysis.

Video Stitch Studio

Orah makes Video-Stitch Studio, which is a similar product but with a slightly different feature set and approach. One limitation I couldn’t find a way around is that the program expects the various fisheye source images to be in separate files, and unlike AVP I couldn’t get the source cropping tool to work without rendering the dual fisheye images into separate square video source files. There should be a way to avoid that step, but I couldn’t find one. (You can use the crop effect to remove 1920 pixels on one side or the other to make the conversions in Media Encoder relatively quickly.) Splitting the source file and rendering separate fisheye spheres adds a workflow step and render time, and my one-minute clip took 11 minutes to export. This is a slower option, which might be significant if you have hours of footage to process instead of minutes.

Clearly, there are a variety of ways to get your raw footage stitched for editing. The results vary greatly between the different programs, so I made video to compare the different stitching options on the same source clip. My first attempt was with a locked-off shot in the park, but that shot was too simple to see the differences, and it didn’t allow for comparison of the stabilization options available in some of the programs. I shot some footage from a moving vehicle to see how well the motion and shake would be handled by the various programs. The result is now available on YouTube, fading between each of the five labeled options over the course of the minute long clip. I would categorize this as testing how well the various applications can handle non-ideal source footage, which happens a lot in the real world.

I didn’t feel that any of the stitching options were perfect solutions, so hopefully we will see further developments in that regard in the future. You may want to explore them yourself to determine which one best meets your needs. Once your footage is correctly mapped to equirectangular projection, ideally in a 2:1 aspect ratio, and the projects are rendered and exported (I recommend Cineform or DNxHR), you are ready to edit your processed footage.

Launch Premiere Pro and import your footage as you normally would. If you are using the Skybox Player plugin, turn on Adobe Transmit with the HMD selected as the only dedicated output (in the Skybox VR configuration window, I recommend setting the hot corner to top left, to avoid accidentally hitting the start menu, desktop hide or application close buttons during preview). In the playback monitor, you may want to right click the wrench icon and select Enable VR to preview a pan-able perspective of the video, instead of the entire distorted equirectangular source frame. You can cut, trim and stack your footage as usual, and apply color corrections and other non-geometry-based effects.

In version 11.1.2 of Premiere, there is basically one VR effect (VR Projection), which allows you to rotate the video sphere along all three axis. If you have the Skybox Suite for Premiere installed, you will have some extra VR effects. The Skybox Rotate Sphere effect is basically the same. You can add titles and graphics and use the Skybox Project 2D effect to project them into the sphere where you want. Skybox also includes other effects for blurring and sharpening the spherical video, as well as denoise and glow. If you have Kolor AVP installed that adds two new effects as well. GoPro VR Horizon is similar to the other sphere rotation ones, but allows you to drag the image around in the monitor window to rotate it, instead of manually adjusting the axis values, so it is faster and more intuitive. The GoPro VR Reframe effect is applied to equirectangular footage, to extract a flat perspective from within it. The field of view can be adjusted and rotated around all three axis.

Most of the effects are pretty easy to figure out, but Skybox Project 2D may require some experimentation to get the desired results. Avoid placing objects near the edges of the 2D frame that you apply it to, to keep them facing toward the viewer. The rotate projection values control where the object is placed relative to the viewer. The rotate source values rotate the object at the location it is projected to. Personally, I think they should be placed in the reverse order in the effects panel.

Encoding the final output is not difficult, just send it to Adobe Media Encoder using either H.264 or H.265 formats. Make sure the “Video is VR” box is checked at the bottom of the Video Settings pane, and in this case that the frame layout is set to monoscopic. There are presets for some of the common framesizes, but I would recommend lowering the bitrates, at least if you are using Gear 360 footage. Also, if you have ambisonic audio set channels to 4.0 in the audio pane.

Once the video is encoded, you can upload it directly to Facebook. If you want to upload to YouTube, exports from AME with the VR box checked should work fine, but for videos from other sources you will need to modify the metadata with this app here.  Once your video is uploaded to YouTube, you can embed it on any webpage that supports 2D web videos. And YouTube videos can be streamed directly to your Rift headset using the free DeoVR video player.

That should give you a 360-video production workflow from start to finish. I will post more updated articles as new software tools are developed, and as I get new 360 cameras with which to test and experiment.

Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

Making the jump to 360 Video (Part 1)

By Mike McCarthy

VR headsets have been available for over a year now, and more content is constantly being developed for them. We should expect that rate to increase as new headset models are being released from established technology companies, prompted in part by the new VR features expected in Microsoft’s next update to Windows 10. As the potential customer base increases, the software continues to mature, and the content offerings broaden. And with the advances in graphics processing technology, we are finally getting to a point where it is feasible to edit videos in VR, on a laptop.

While a full VR experience requires true 3D content, in order to render a custom perspective based on the position of the viewer’s head, there is a “video” version of VR, which is called 360 Video. The difference between “Full VR” and “360 Video,” is that while both allow you to look around every direction, 360 Video is pre-recorded from a particular point, and you are limited to the view from that spot. You can’t move your head to see around behind something, like you can in true VR. But 360 video can still offer a very immersive experience and arguably better visuals, since they aren’t being rendered on the fly. 360 video can be recorded in stereoscopic or flat, depending on the capabilities of the cameras used.

Stereoscopic is obviously more immersive, less of a video dome and inherently supported by the nature of VR HMDs (Head Mounted Displays). I expect that stereoscopic content will be much more popular in 360 Video than it ever was for flat screen content. Basically the viewer is already wearing the 3D glasses, so there is no downside, besides needing twice as much source imagery to work with, similar to flat screen stereoscopic.

There are a variety of options for recording 360 video, from a single ultra-wide fisheye lens on the Fly360, to dual 180-degree lens options like the Gear 360, Nikon KeyMission, and Garmin Virb. GoPro is releasing the Fusion, which will fall into this category as well. The next step is more lens, with cameras like the Orah4i or the Insta360 Pro. Beyond that, you are stepping into the much more expensive rigs with lots of lenses and lots of stitching, but usually much higher final image quality, like the GoPro Omni or the Nokia Ozo. There are also countless rigs that use an array of standard cameras to capture 360 degrees, but these solutions are much less integrated than the all-in-one products that are now entering the market. Regardless of the camera you use, you are going to be recording one or more files in a pixel format fairly unique to that camera that will need to be processed before it can be used in the later stages of the post workflow.

Affordable cameras

The simplest and cheapest 360 camera option I have found is the Samsung Gear 360. There are two totally different models with the same name, usually differentiated by the year of their release. I am using the older 2016 model, which has a higher resolution sensor, but records UHD instead of the slightly larger full 4K video of the newer 2017 model.

The Gear 360 records two fisheye views that are just over 180 degrees, from cameras situated back to back in a 2.5-inch sphere. Both captured image circles are recorded onto a single frame, side by side, resulting in a 2:1 aspect ratio files. These are encoded into JPEG (7776×3888 stills) or HEVC (3840×1920 video) at 30Mb and saved onto a MicroSD card. The camera is remarkably simple to use, with only three buttons, and a tiny UI screen to select recording mode and resolution. If you have a Samsung Galaxy phone, there are a variety of other functions that allows, like remote control and streaming the output to the phone as a viewfinder and such. Even without a Galaxy phone, the camera did everything I needed to generate 360 footage to stitch and edit with but it was cool to have a remote viewfinder for the driving shots.

Pricier cameras

One of the big challenges of shooting with any 360 camera is how to avoid getting gear and rigging in the shot since the camera records everything around it. Even the tiny integrated tripod on the Gear 360 is visible in the shots, and putting it on the plate of my regular DSLR tripod fills the bottom of the footage. My solution was to use the thinnest support I could to keep the rest of the rigging as far from the camera as possible, and therefore smaller from its perspective. I created a couple options to shoot with that are pictured below. The results are much less intrusive in the resulting images that are recorded. Obviously besides the camera support, there is the issue of everything else in the shot including the operator. Since most 360 videos are locked off, an operator may not be needed, but there is no “behind the camera” for hiding gear or anything else. Your set needs to be considered in every direction, since it will all be visible to your viewer. If you can see the camera, it can see you.

There are many different approaches to storing 360 images, which are inherently spherical, as a video file, which is inherently flat. This is the same issue that cartographers have faced for hundreds of years — creating flat paper maps of a planet that is inherently curved. While there are sphere map, cube map and pyramid projection options (among others) based on the way VR headsets work, the equirectangular format has emerged as the standard for editing and distribution encoding, while other projections are occasionally used for certain effects processing or other playback options.

Usually the objective of the stitching process is to get the images from all of your lenses combined into a single frame with the least amount of distortion and the fewest visible seams. There are a number of software solutions that do this, from After Effects plugins, to dedicated stitching applications like Kolor AVP and Orah VideoStitch-Studio to unique utilities for certain cameras. Once you have your 360 video footage in the equirectangular format, most of the other steps of the workflow are similar to their flat counterparts, besides VFX. You can cut, fade, title and mix your footage in an NLE and then encode it in the standard H.264 or H.265 formats with a few changes to the metadata.

Technically, the only thing you need to add to an existing 4K editing workflow in order to make the jump to 360 video is a 360 camera. Everything else could be done in software, but the other thing you will want is a VR headset or HMD. It is possible to edit 360 video without an HMD, but it is a lot like grading a film using scopes but no monitor. The data and tools you need are all right there, but without being able to see the results, you can’t be confident of what the final product will be like. You can scroll around the 360 video in the view window, or see the whole projected image all distorted, but it won’t have the same feel as experiencing it in a VR headset.

360 Video is not as processing intensive as true 3D VR, but it still requires a substantial amount of power to provide a good editing experience. I am using a Thinkpad P71 with an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU to get smooth performance during all these tests.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we focus on editing 360 Video.

Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been working on new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

Director Ava DuVernay named VES Summit’s keynote speaker

Director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay has been named keynote speaker at the 2017 VES Summit, “Inspiring Change: Building on 20 Years of VES Innovation.” The forum, which takes place Saturday, October 28, celebrates the Visual Effects Society’s 20th anniversary and brings together creatives, executives and visionaries from a variety of disciplines to discuss the evolution of visual imagery and the VFX industry landscape in a TED Talks-like atmosphere.

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, DuVernay won the Best Director Prize for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, which she also wrote and produced. For her work on Selma in 2014, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th. Her current directorial work includes the dramatic television series Queen Sugar, and the upcoming Disney feature film A Wrinkle in Time.

It was back in 2010 that DuVernay made her directorial debut with the acclaimed 2008 hip-hop documentary This Is The Life, and she has gone on to direct several network documentaries, including Venus Vs. for ESPN. She has also directed significant short form work, including August 28: A Day in the Life of a People, commissioned by The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as fashion and beauty films for Prada and Apple.

Other speakers include:
–  Syd Mead, visual futurist and conceptual artist
–  President of IMAX Home Entertainment Jason Brenek on “Evolution in Entertainment: VR, Cinema and Beyond”
– CEO of SSP BlueHemanshu Nigam on “When Hackers Attack: How Can Hollywood Fight Back?”
– Head of Adobe Research Gavin Miller on “Will the Future Look More Like Harry Potter or Star Trek?”
–  Senior research engineer at Autodesk, Evan Atherton on “The Age of Imagination”
–  Founder/CEO of the Emblematic Group, Nonny de la Peña on “Creating for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Realities”

Additional speakers and roundtable moderators will be announced soon. The 2017 VES Summit takes place at the Sofitel Hotel Beverly Hills.