Virtual Reality Possibilities

December 7th, 2015 Vern Oakley

Recently, I received my cardboard, virtual reality glasses from the NY Times. I downloaded the app, along with some movies, and put my phone into the viewer to experience a couple of videos. Afterwards I felt a little cyber-sick and thought of the French audience’s reaction to one of the first motion pictures.

A Train of Thought
In 1895, a Paris audience watched a film by the Lumiere brothers. The footage was that of a train arriving at the La Ciotat Station. It was one of the first movies ever shown in public that could be projected onto a screen. Though the silent film was black and white, and by today’s standards quite mundane, the audience’s reaction was legendary. They jumped out of their seats in terror. Some ran out of theater for fear the train would leave the screen and run them over.

The Lumiere brothers were the first documentarians who attempted to capture reality and share it with an audience. In fact, their films were called “actuality films”. The film had another innovation, which was the placement of the camera. The brothers placed it directly beside the train tracks, and at a dramatic angle. This added to the feeling of a train actually speeding toward the audience.

What’s Old is New
Now, fast forward 120 years into the future. We’re confronted with another amazing leap forward in technology. It’s the 21st century equivalent of Lumiere’s train pulling into the station. The Lumiere brothers’ choice to put the camera in front of the train maximized the impact on the audience. Today, a VR team requires the same forward-thinking and vision in order to capture those same human experiences and deploy them to an audience.

The Final Frontier
Utilizing software to combine multiple images into one is not new. Anyone with an iPhone can shoot a panoramic picture or even a small snippet of panoramic video. But, here’s what is new, VR software that seamlessly stitches together multiple videos. At the same time, it uses your smartphone’s accelerometer to adjust the image according to how your head moves. This innovation brings us one step closer to the technology used in shows such as Star Trek. It won’t be long before everyone has their own “Holodeck,” and can experience any reality they choose, simply by asking the computer to create it.

It’s the Same but Different
Since a virtual reality experience is so immersive, it can’t be produced in the same way as a typical film. The viewer is part of the action, so he needs time to look around, and to experience the moment.. This is why storytelling, in this medium, is so different than in film. In film, a scene might have a close-up, a medium, or long shot that dictates what the viewer sees. However, because the viewer chooses what he wants to see, a VR video has few cuts, and no close-up or medium shots. It becomes more about where the viewer is, and what he chooses to look at. In this way, one person’s virtual reality’s experience can be quite different than another’s.

Don’t Get on the Gravy Train Yet
The challenge of any new technology is whether or not it will catch on. Is VR an enduring technology like cell phones, or will it go the way of Google Glass?

Once the initial novelty wears off, people may only continue using this technology when the payoff is greater than watching a traditional video. They need more than a “cool factor” in order to don a cardboard viewer and download a video.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is an Oncoming Train
In the end, the only way VR will be widely embraced is if, and when, the technology can easily gives us something more than what we currently have. The Lumiere brothers had audiences running out of the theater, but VR has to do one better, make audiences experience running out of the theater without taking a step.