Virtual Reality Roundtable

By Randi Altman

Virtual reality is seemingly everywhere, especially this holiday season. Just one look at your favorite electronics store’s website and you will find VR headsets from the inexpensive, to the affordable, to the “if I win the lottery” ones.

While there are many companies popping up to service all aspects of VR/AR/360 production, for the most part traditional post and production companies are starting to add these services to their menu, learning best practices as they go.

We reached out to a sampling of pros who are working in this area to talk about the problems and evolution of this burgeoning segment of the industry.

Nice Shoes Creative Studio: Creative director Tom Westerlin

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
A big misconception is that a VR production is like a standard 2D video/animation commercial production. There are some similarities, but it gets more complicated when we add interaction, different hardware options, realtime data and multiple distribution platforms. It actually takes a lot more time and man hours to create a 360 video or VR experience relative to a 2D video production.

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Tom Westerlin

More development time needs to be scheduled for research, user experience and testing. We’re adding more stages to the overall production. None of this should discourage anyone from exploring a concept in virtual reality, but there is a lot of consideration and research that should be done in the early stages of a project. The lack of standards presents some creative challenges for brands and agencies considering a VR project. The hardware and software choices made for distribution can have an impact on the size of the audience you want to reach as well as the approach to build it.

The current landscape provides the following options:
YouTube and Facebook can hit a ton of people with a 360 video, but has limited VR functionality; a WebVR experience, works within certain browsers like Chrome or Firefox, but not others, limiting your audience; a custom app or experimental installation using the Oculus or HTC Vive, allows for experiences with full interactivity, but presents the issue of audience limitations. There is currently no one best way to create a VR experience. It’s still very much a time of discovery and experimentation.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
We shouldn’t just apply what we’ve all learned from 2D filmmaking to the creation of a VR experience, so it is crucial to include the production, post and development teams in the design phase of a project.

The current majority of clients are coming from a point of view where many standard constructs within the world of traditional production (quick camera moves or cuts, extreme close-ups) have negative physiological implications (nausea, disorientation, extreme nausea). The impact of seemingly simple creative or design decisions can have huge repercussions on complexity, time, cost and the user experience. It’s important for clients to be open to telling a story in a different manner than they’re used to.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR?
The biggest misconception is clients thinking that 360 video and VR are the same. As we’ve started to introduce this technology to our clients, we’ve worked to explain the core differences between these extremely difference experiences: VR is interactive and most of the time a full CG environment, while 360 is video and although immersive, it’s a more passive experience. Each have their own unique challenges and rewards, so as we think about the end user’s experiences, we can determine what will work best.

There’s also the misconception that VR will make you sick. If executed poorly, VR can make a user sick, but the right creative ideas executed with the right equipment can result in an experience that’s quite enjoyable and nausea free.

Nice Shoes’ ‘Mio Garden’ 360 experience.

Another misconception is that VR is capable of anything. While many may confuse VR and 360 and think an experience is limited to passively looking around, there are others who have bought into the hype and inflated promises of a new storytelling medium. That’s why it’s so important to understand the limitations of different devices at the early stages of a concept, so that creative, production and post can all work together to deliver an experience that takes advantage of VR storytelling, rather than falling victims to the limitations of a specific device.

The advent of affordable systems that are capable of interactivity, like the Google Daydream, should lead to more popular apps that show off a higher level of interactivity. Even sharing video of people experiencing VR while interacting with their virtual worlds could have a huge impact on the understanding of the difference between passively watching and truly reaching out and touching.

How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
In one word: Interactivity. By definition VR is interactive and giving the user the ability to manipulate the world and actually affect it is the magic of virtual reality.

Assimilate: CEO Jeff Edson

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
The biggest issue in VR is straightforward workflows — from camera to delivery — and then, of course, delivery to what? Compared to a year ago, shooting 360/VR video today has made big steps in ease of use because more people have experience doing it. But it is a LONG way from point and shoot. As integrated 360/VR video cameras come to market more and more, VR storytelling will become much more straightforward and the creators can focus more on the story.

Jeff Edson

And then delivery to what? There are many online platforms for 360/VR video playback today: Facebook, YouTube 360 and others for mobile headset viewing, and then there is delivery to a PC for non-mobile headset viewing. The viewing perspective is different for all of these, which means extra work to ensure continuity on all the platforms. To cover all possible viewers one needs to publish to all. This is not an optimal business model, which is really the crux of this issue.

Can standards help in this? Standards as we have known in the video world, yes and no. The standards for 360/VR video are happening by default, such as equirectangular and cubic formats, and delivery formats like H.264, Mov and more. Standards would help, but they are not the limiting factor for growth. The market is not waiting on a defined set of formats because demand for VR is quickly moving forward. People are busy creating.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
We hear from our customers that the best results will come when the director, DP and post supervisor collaborate on the expectations for look and feel, as well as the possible creative challenges and resolutions. And experience and budget are big contributors. A key issue is, what camera/rig requirements are needed for your targeted platform(s)? For example, how many cameras and what type of cameras (4K, 6K, GoPro, etc.) as well as lighting? When what about sound, which plays a key role in the viewer’s VR experience.

unexpected concert

This Yael Naim mini-concert was posted in Scratch VR by Alex Regeffe at Neotopy.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR?
I see two. One: The perception that VR is a flash in the pan, just a fad. What we see today is just the launch pad. The applications for VR are vast within entertainment alone, and then there is the extensive list of other markets like training and learning in such fields as medical, military, online universities, flight, manufacturing and so forth. Two: That VR post production is a difficult process. There are too many steps and tools. This definitely doesn’t need to be the case. Our Scratch VR customers are getting high-quality results within a single, simplified VR workflow

How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
The main issue with stereo 3D is that it has really never scaled beyond a theater experience. Whereas with VR, it may end up being just the opposite. It’s unclear if VR can be a true theater experience other than classical technologies like domes and simulators. 360/VR video in the near term is, in general, a short-form media play. It’s clear that sooner than later smart phones will be able to shoot 360/VR video as a standard feature and usage will sky rocket overnight. And when that happens, the younger demographic will never shoot anything that is not 360. So the Snapchat/Instagram kinds of platforms will be filled with 360 snippets. VR headsets based upon mobile devices make the pure number of displays significant. The initial tethered devices are not insignificant in numbers, but with the next-generation of higher-resolution and untethered devices, maybe most significantly at a much lower price point, we will see the numbers become massive. None of this was ever the case with stereo 3D film/video.

Pixvana: Executive producer Aaron Rhodes

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
There are many issues with VR productions, many of them are just growing pains: not being able to see a live stitch, how to direct without being in the shot, what to do about lighting — but these are all part of the learning curve and evolution of VR as a craft. Resolution and management around big data are the biggest issues I see on the set. Pixvana is all about resolution — it plays a key role in better immersion. Many of the cameras out there only master at 4K and that just doesn’t cut it. But when they do shoot 8K and above, the data management is extreme. Don’t under estimate the responsibility you are giving to your DIT!

aaron rhodes

Aaron Rhodes

The biggest issue is this is early days for VR capture. We’re used to a century of 2D filmmaking and decade of high-definition capture with an assortment of camera gear. All current VR camera rigs have compromises, and will, until technology catches up. It’s too early for standards since we’re still learning and this space is changing rapidly. VR production and post also require different approaches. In some cases we have to unlearn what worked in standard 2D filmmaking.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
Give me a schedule, and make it realistic. Stitching takes time, and unless you have a fleet of render nodes at your disposal, rendering your shot locally is going to take time — and everything you need to update or change it will take more time. VR post has lots in common with a non-VR spot, but the magnitude of data and rendering is much greater — make sure you plan for it.

Other questions to ask, because you really can’t ask enough:
• Why is this project being done as VR?
• Does the client have team members who understand the VR medium?
• If not will they be willing to work with a production team to design and execute with VR in mind?
• Has this project been designed for VR rather than just a 2D project in VR?
• Where will this be distributed? (Headsets? Which ones? YouTube? Facebook? Etc.)
• Will this require an app or will it be distributed to headsets through other channels?
• If it is an app, who will build the app and submit it to the VR stores?
• Do they want to future proof it by finishing greater than 4K?
• Is this to be mono or stereo? (If it’s stereo it better be very good stereo)
• What quality level are they aiming for? (Seamless stitches? Good stereo?)
• Is there time and budget to accomplish the quality they want?
• Is this to have spatialized audio?

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR?
VR is a narrative component, just like any actor or plot line. It’s not something that should just be done to do it. It should be purposeful to shoot VR. It’s the same with stereo. Don’t shoot stereo just because you can — sure, you can experiment and play (we need to do that always), but don’t without purpose. The medium of VR is not for every situation.
Other misconceptions because there are a lot out there:
• it’s as easy as shooting normal 2D.
• you need to have action going on constantly in 360 degrees.
• everything has to be in stereo.
• there are fixed rules.
• you can simply shoot with a VR camera and it will be interesting, without any idea of specific placement, story or design.
How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
Education. There are tiers of immersion with VR, and stereo 3D is one of them. I see these tiers starting with the desktop experience and going up in immersion from there, and it’s important to the strengths and weakness of each:
• YouTube/Facebook on the desktop [low immersion]
• Cardboard, GearVR, Daydream 2D/3D low-resolution
• Headset Rift and Vive 2D/3D 6 degrees of freedom [high immersion]
• Computer generated experiences [high immersion]

Maxon US: President/CEO Paul Babb

paul babb

Paul Babb

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
Project file size. Huge files. Lots of pixels. Telling a story. How do you get the viewer to look where you want them to look? How do you tell and drive a story in a 360 environment.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
I think it’s more that production teams are going to have to ask the questions to focus what clients want out of their VR. Too many companies just want to get into VR (buzz!) without knowing what they want to do, what they should do and what the goal of the piece is.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR? How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
Oh boy. Let me tell you, that’s a tough one. People don’t even know that “3D” is really “stereography.”

Experience 360°: CEO Ryan Moore

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
One of the biggest issues plaguing the current VR production landscape is the lack of true professionals that exist in the field. While a vast majority of independent filmmakers are doing their best at adapting their current techniques, they have been unsuccessful in perceiving ryan moorehow films and VR experiences genuinely differ. This apparent lack of virtual understanding generally leads to poor UX creation within finalized VR products.

Given the novelty of virtual reality and 360 video, standards are only just being determined in terms of minimum quality and image specifications. These, however, are constantly changing. In order to keep a finger on the pulse, it is encouraged for VR companies to be plugged into 360 video communities through social media platforms. It is through this essential interaction that VR production technology can continually be reintroduced.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
When first embarking on a VR project, it is highly beneficial to walk prospective clients through the entirety of the process, before production actually begins. This allows the client a full understanding of how the workflow is used, while also ensuring client satisfaction with the eventual partnership. It’s vital that production partners convey an ultimate understanding of VR and its use, and explain their tactics in “cutting” VR scenes in post — this can affect the user’s experience in a pronounced way.

‘The Backwoods Tennessee VR Experience’ via Experience 360.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR? How do we convince people that this isn’t stereo 3D?
The biggest misconception about VR and 360 video is that it is an offshoot of traditional storytelling, and can be used in ways similar to both cinematic and documentary worlds. The mistake in the VR producer equating this connection is that it can often limit the potential of the user’s experience to that of a voyeur only. Content producers need to think much farther out of this box, and begin to embrace having images paired with interaction and interactivity. It helps to keep in mind that the intended user will feel as if these VR experiences are very personal to them, because they are usually isolated in a HMD when viewing the final product.

VR is being met with appropriate skepticism, and is widely still considered a ‘“fad” without the media landscape. This is often because the critic has not actually had a chance to try a virtual reality experience firsthand themselves, and does not understand the wide reaching potential of immersive media. At three years in, a majority of the adults in the United States have never had a chance to try VR themselves, relying on what they understand from TV commercials and online reviews. One of the best ways to convince a doubtful viewer is to give them a chance to try a VR headset themselves.

Radeon Technologies Group at AMD: Head of VR James Knight

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment? Is it lack of standards?
The biggest issue for us is (or was) probably stitching and the excessive amount of time it takes, but we’re tacking that head on with Project Loom. We have realtime stitching with Loom. You can already download an early version of it on GPUopen.com. But you’re correct, there is a lack of standards in VR/360 production. It’s mainly because there are no really established common practices. That’s to be expected though when you’re shooting for a new medium. Hollywood and entertainment professionals are showing up to the space in a big way, so I suspect we’ll all be working out lots of the common practices in 2017 on sets.

James Knight

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
Double check they have experience shooting 360 and ask them for a detailed post production pipeline outline. Occasionally, we hear horror stories of people awarding projects to companies that think they can shoot 360 without having personally explored 360 shooting themselves and making mistakes. You want to use an experienced crew that’s made the mistakes, and mostly is cognizant of what works and what doesn’t. The caveat there though is, again, there’s no established rules necessarily, so people should be willing to try new things… sometimes it takes someone not knowing they shouldn’t do something to discover something great, if that makes sense.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR? How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
That’s a fun question. The overarching misconception for me, honestly, is just as though a cliché politician might, for example, make a fleeting judgment that video games are bad for society, people are often times making assumptions that VR if for kids or 16 year old boys at home in their boxer shorts. It isn’t. This young industry is really starting to build up a decent library of content, and the payoff is huge when you see well produced content! It’s transformative and you can genuinely envision the potential when you first put on a VR headset.

The biggest way to convince them this isn’t 3D is to convince a naysayer put the headset on… let’s agree we all look rather silly with a VR headset on, and once you get over that, you’ll find out what’s inside. It’s magical. I had the CEO of BAFTA LA, Chantal Rickards, tell me upon seeing VR for the first time, “I remember when my father had arrived home on Christmas Eve with a color TV set in the 1960s and the excitement that brought to me and my siblings. The thrill of seeing virtual reality for the first time was like seeing color TV for the first time, but times 100!”

Missing Pieces: Head of AR/VR/360 Catherine Day

Catherine Day

What is the biggest issue with VR productions at the moment?
The biggest issue with VR production today is the fact that everything keeps changing so quickly. Every day there’s a new camera, a new set of tools, a new proprietary technology and new formats to work with. It’s difficult to understand how all of these things work, and even harder to make them work together seamlessly in a deadline-driven production setting. So much of what is happening on the technology side of VR production is evolving very rapidly. Teams often reinvent the wheel from one project to the next as there are endless ways to tell stories in VR, and the workflows can differ wildly depending on the creative vision.

The lack of funding for creative content is also a huge issue. There’s ample funding to create in other mediums, and we need more great VR content to drive consumer adoption.

Is it lack of standards?
In any new medium and any pioneering phase of an industry, it’s dangerous to create standards too early. You don’t want to stifle people from trying new things. As an example, with our recent NBA VR project, we broke all of the conventional rules that exist around VR — there was a linear narrative, fast cut edits, it was over 25 minutes long — yet still was very well received. So it’s not a lack of standards, just a lack of bravery.

What should clients ask of their production and post teams when embarking on their VR project?
Ask to see what kind of work that team has done in the past. They should also delve in and find out exactly who completed the work and how much, if any, of it was outsourced. There is a curtain that often closes between the client and the production/post company and it closes once the work is awarded. Clients need to know who exactly is working on their project, as much of the legwork involved in creating a VR project — stitching, compositing etc. — is outsourced.

It’s also important to work with a very experienced post supervisor — one with a very discerning eye. You want someone who really knows VR that can evaluate every aspect of what a facility will assemble. Everything from stitching, compositing to editorial and color — the level of attention to detail and quality control for VR is paramount. This is key not only for current releases, but as technology evolves — and as new standards and formats are applied — you want your produced content to be as future-proofed as possible so that if it requires a re-render to accommodate a new, higher-res format in the future, it will still hold up and look fantastic.

What is the biggest misconception about VR — content, process or anything relating to VR?
On the consumer level, the biggest misconception is that people think that 360 video on YouTube or Facebook is VR. Another misconception is that regular filmmakers are the creative talents best suited to create VR content. Many of them are great at it, but traditional filmmakers have the luxury of being in control of everything, and in a VR production setting you have no box to work in and you have to think about a billion moving parts at once. So it either requires a creative that is good with improvisation, or a complete control freak with eyes in the back of their head. It’s been said before, but film and theater are as different as film and VR. Another misconception is that you can take any story and tell it in VR — you actually should only embark on telling stories in VR if they can, in some way, be elevated through the medium.

How do we convince people this isn’t stereo 3D?
With stereo 3D, there was no simple, affordable path for consumer adoption. We’re still getting there with VR, but today there are a number of options for consumers and soon enough there will be a demand for room-scale VR and more advanced immersive technologies in the home.


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