Virtual reality, actual problem

Virtual reality was supposed to revolutionise movies and transform our home entertainment systems, but Richard MacManus says there's skepticism in Hollywood

Virtual reality has had its fair share of hype over the past couple of years, not least from the entertainment industry. There’s been speculation about VR movies from the likes of Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, and excitement about watching an NBA game or a Beyonce concert using the magic of VR. These are very compelling use cases for VR – who wouldn’t want to be fully immersed in a Peter Jackson universe or getting 360 degree views at a rock concert? But I was surprised to learn that some of Hollywood’s technology gurus do not see a bright future for VR movies. In fact they’re not even sure VR will be included in the next generation of home entertainment systems.

Last week I attended MagnifyWorld in Auckland, a two-day conference about virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. It was one of many events that ran across the country as part of Techweek, an excellent initiative that was started nationally last year by the New Zealand Technology Industry Association (AKA NZTech). It extended TechWeek from an Auckland only event launched by ATEED. At this year’s MagnifyWorld, the future of VR in Hollywood and in the home was a big topic of discussion.

Barry Sandrew, a US visual effects expert known for his work in colorisation and 3D conversion of movies, has two major concerns about VR in the movie business. Firstly, he thinks it’s simply not a comfortable experience to watch a two-hour movie under a VR headset. Almost everyone gets eye fatigue after more than fifteen minutes, and some even get nausea. But more fundamentally, Sandrew believes that traditional narrative storylines don’t work in VR. He likens a VR movie to “a theme park ride experience or [an] interactive game experience masquerading as story.”

In other words, it can be an exciting visual experience but it lacks substance. According to Sandrew, when it comes to cinema people “would rather be told a good story passively with compelling and well-directed visuals.”

Commercially, the signs aren’t good for VR movies. Earlier this month, Facebook’s Oculus division shuttered its film studio. Oculus Story Studio was launched in January 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival, and last year won an Emmy for best original interactive program for its short VR film “Henry.” However, as Barry Sandrew pointed out at MagnifyWorld, there’s a big difference between winning awards and making money. VR films like Henry simply haven’t found a wider audience.

The problem is that movies are a director’s medium, but in VR the director has little control.

Just ask Richard Taylor, a Hollywood veteran who did special effects work in the 1979 Star Trek film and the original Tron. He’s also a director of commercials and video games (note for Kiwi readers: he’s not the Richard Taylor who founded Weta Workshop). In a traditional movie, said Taylor at MagnifyWorld, “you look where the director tells you to look.” But in VR, the user is in control of where they look. While there are tricks a VR movie director can use to direct a user’s eye, such as having a character tell you to look up, these are workarounds at best.

It’s not just movies struggling to adapt to VR. There are also question marks over viewing sports events and concerts inside VR. These are typically events of at least two hours, so eye fatigue and possible nausea are a problem here too. In addition, MagnifyWorld panelists noted that sports and concerts are often social events; and VR is an isolating technology in a physical sense. You might be able to connect with others within VR (I call this ‘invirt’), similar to how you connect ‘online’ with people using Twitter and Facebook. But we all know it’s not the same thing as socialising with friends and family in real life.

So potentially many of our current home entertainment options – movies, sports and televised events – won’t be viable options in a VR rig. Which begs the question: what will our future home entertainment systems look like? Especially if, like me, you have little interest in VR gaming.

Richard Taylor thinks he has the solution. Over the past six years he’s been working on a new company, called Eymerce (pronounced similar to “immerse”). He’s developed a series of LED screens that he says will create “the illusion of VR.” These LED screens can be stitched together to create a massive screen – ideally surrounding you 360 degrees. Taylor told the MagnifyWorld audience that his goal is to eliminate VR headsets, which he thinks is the root cause of the problems with VR movies. Although even in his system, the user will still need to wear special eyewear in order to view VR movies. It’s unclear what – if any – eyestrain will result from his glasses. Nevertheless, what Taylor is trying to do is surround the user with 3D visuals, and at the same time allow movie directors to control their story.

Having not seen Taylor’s screens for myself, I don’t know if Eymerce is anything more than vapourware at this point. The Eymerce website makes some big claims – it talks about screens for everything from casinos, to theme parks, to cinemas, to home theatre systems. But assuming the technology is real and works, it would be neat to view an immersive movie without having to wear a bulky, headache-inducing headset. We’ll have to wait and see whether Richard Taylor delivers on this vision.

What we do know is that, so far, people who aren’t gamers are not buying VR headsets. 2016 was projected to see sales of 12 million premium VR headsets, from the likes of Facebook’s Oculus and PlayStation VR. In reality, sales ended up being around 1.5 million. Perhaps this is just teething problems for VR hardware, or VR content hasn’t found its proper niche yet.

Regardless, so far Hollywood isn’t impressed with VR – and the rest of us aren’t buying it either.

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