Virtual Reality Is Officially Immersed in the Film World. Now What?

In 2014, I made a prediction. Virtual reality, I believed, would be the future of filmmaking. I was mostly correct; I was also terribly wrong. I was right in that dozens of filmmakers were going to embrace the 360-degree, immersive world of VR—this was obvious even from the half-dozen or so experiences tucked away in a small room at the Sundance Film Festival, where I had my epiphany. I was wrong in making it sound as though VR was going to up and replace film. It didn’t. It likely won’t. Ready Player One-style virtual worlds may never take the place of multiplexes, but immersive entertainment can change the landscape—if its creators can get people to pony up for it.

In the last four years, much has changed in the world of 360-degree filmmaking. These days virtual reality has a presence at most major film festivals. Scores of movies and TV shows now have headset-ready experiences to accompany them. Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s VR installation Carne y Arena even won a special-achievement award from the Academy of Motion Pictures. The world VR pioneers envisioned in 2014 has come to pass. “Everything I could’ve imagined to legitimize the artform, almost all of it’s happened,” says former Oculus Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi, who last week launched his new immersive film studio, Fable. “The only thing that hasn’t happened is, like, any evidence that consumers will purchase it—which is a fairly significant missing piece. So the really important ‘What now?’ is demonstrating you can make revenue.”

Oh yes, that old chestnut: making money. If you’re a startup, nascent industry, or even just a person with a good idea, you know you’ve made it when people start wondering if you’re a goldmine. For VR filmmakers, that time is coming—if not already here. With the news yesterday that VR-in-space experience Spheres had been acquired for seven figures at the festival, it's clear the medium is moving into the realms normally occupied by traditional filmmakers and studios, but that's only part of the necessary shift. Getting a company to acquire a piece of content and getting consumers to watch it are two different things.

“In the past year or so, no one has asked me, ‘Can you tell a story in VR?’” says Oculus executive producer Yelena Rachitsky. “VR is creating a whole new type of content, but it’s also having audiences understand what it is. So it’s teaching them how this works and what it is and what to call it and connect to it, which we’re slowly doing.”

A map that features in Oculus’ Wolves in the Walls.

Fable

To create something people can connect to, Saatchi’s company has been working on a piece called Wolves in the Walls, the first chapter of which is showing this week at Sundance. Adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman, it’s an experiment in getting viewers to interact with a story’s protagonist—in this case, a girl named Lucy, who asks them to help her prove there are creatures living in the walls of her house. Using Oculus’ Touch controllers, she’s able to virtually hand viewers cameras and let them take pictures. She’s programmed to have different responses based on what it is the viewers do, and she remembers their various actions for future reference. Unlike the interactions in most narrative VR, and all movies, Wolves lets viewers participate.

In Saatchi’s mind, that's the start of the next phase of interactive filmmaking: creating characters that can later be ported over to an augmented reality system like Magic Leap or integrated with a virtual assistant like Alexa. In this world, Lucy would live in your Oculus headset, but sit next to you on the couch when you’re in AR and answer questions about what show you should watch on TV. It’s an ambitious jump, but a necessary one—now that VR storytelling has arrived, its creators need to figure out where it’s going.

“Four years ago, there was just VR, and now my personal belief is that we should be focused a future where the the thing that goes mainstream is VR/AR,” says Saatchi, who launched Fable with more than a few folks from Story Studio, which Oculus shuttered last spring. “We got to reset after Story Studio, now it’s ‘What is a five-year vision from 2017?’ instead of ‘What is the end of the vision we had in 2013, 2014?’”

Saatchi isn’t the only one. In its quest to find room in the marketplace, VR filmmaking may be feeling some pressure from other tech. In the time that the cottage industry of people making narrative VR has been working to prove their mettle, other forms of interactive entertainment have come to the fore, augmented reality and AI-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo chief among them. And now those technologies are the new kids on the block, showing up at events like Sundance. They're still in something of an infancy stage by comparison—at the festival's forward-looking New Frontier program this year, there are 18 VR projects, one AR offering, two AI ones, and two MR—but there's undeniable hype around them. And with stories like this Economist piece and headlines that ask “Game over for virtual reality?,” it’s incumbent on VR to play nice, especially if it wants to be a food group in viewers’ media diets.

Generally speaking, VR films/experiences/what-have-you are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment—TV, social media, videogames, podcasts—does. But that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR films don’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels. Studios come to Sundance to acquire movies to send to theaters (or Netflix/Amazon), but they don’t really buy VR stuff. (Spheres' got picked up by a VR funding outfit called CityLights.) Some projects get released through standalone VR apps for headsets—like the one from Within—and others are available through services like Steam or the stores for Oculus and HTC Vive, but there is no single centralized place with with all the best content. “I think there’s an inflection point for VR in terms of it occupying the same space as social media/TV/film,” says Gabo Arora, cofounder and creator of VR studio Tomorrow Never Knows. “VR as a medium, though, is not there to supplant these formats, and it’s being degraded by trying to fit into their distribution channels.”

VR experiences are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment does—but that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR doesn't fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels.

Arora’s Sundance experience, it’s worth noting, does have social aspects. Created with Sensorium's John Fitzgerald and Matthew Niederhauser, Zikr: A Sufi Revival lets multiple users join together in VR to experience, and learn about, the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism. It’s a thought-provoking piece—and an interesting use of the format to help viewers grasp an often misunderstood religious sect—but it’s probably better suited for a museum or cultural center than a living room. Zikr and Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena are are showing the future of the medium, Arora says, but “it’s not going to be about how many shares it gets on Facebook, but how we can then extend interactivity into more social realms.”

Indeed, a taxonomy of narrative VR experiences is beginning to emerge. Zikr is more like a theatrical release—something you experience out in the world with others—while something like Wolves in the Walls is better suited to home viewing. Other pieces might be just fine on Google Cardboard or easily ported to whatever kind of VR-viewing setup is available. But none of them really offer much insight on where narrative VR belongs.

Meanwhile, VR continues to untether itself from computers and phones, with wireless-capable headsets (HTC Vive Pro) and all-in-one "standalone" devices (Oculus Go) on the horizon this year. And as the technology becomes more mobile, it can really go anywhere. Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, cofounders of VR studio Within, see a future in which VR, AI, and AR all coexist and the next generation—already attuned to living in a virtual reality on their smartphones—hang out in it with their friends whenever they want. (Let's face it, kids who hang out on their smartphones rather than partying won't even question where online social interactions fit into their media diets.)

It's a world they've already started building. Within's Sundance entry his year is a multi-person VR experience that turns you and your friends into female warriors set to the song "Chorus" by Justice, but for them it's one of the first steps into a world where social VR other augmented reality technologies are a part of daily life—at home, at the theater, in a museum, and beyond.

“There are definitely pieces that feel more aligned with a heavy, thoughtful film festival, but I look at it like [VR] is a transmission tool. It’s a machine, in the same way a television is machine," Milk says. "Ultimately, that’s what builds a truly new medium, it’s not something that you just see in amusement parks or film festivals. There eventually needs to be something for everyone in there.”

If the last four years have proven anything, it’s that VR experiences, in whatever form they may take, belong at film festivals. The next four years may prove they belong everywhere else.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/sundance-vr-crossroads/

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