Everyone is talking about virtual reality (VR). People are throwing endless stacks of money at it, like AOL during the (first) Clinton era. Time to give in? I remember the moment about a year ago when I realized, to my horror, that everything I’d shoot would start taking up double the space, in 4K resolution. And here we are, one year later: Welcome to VR. Before we get too excited, here are some proposed reality checks on virtual reality:
- 4K STINKS: It’s impressive for normal video (don’t forget, most ARRI Alexas shoot 1080p), but for VR, it’s barely adequate: you’re looking at DVD quality or worse. Do we have a choice? Not really — at least now. We’re stuck with a delivery method for VR like an old-skool, legacy compromise: cramming the entire 360-degree sphere into one flat 16:9 video frame, as in that psychedelic wavy thing you see at right. It’s like a massive exaggeration (all over the place) of the technological compromise we get from DVD media that stores squished 4:3 content, then gets stretched out to a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. That’s a resolution-loser, taking you below the evident specs. So, VR in 4K looks relatively awful, because of all that frugal stretching out of pixels, and it’s going to be a while before playback can exceed 2160p on mobile devices to make up for it.
- VR CAMERAS ARE THE WORST: Always underestimating the sophistication of viewers, the blue chip camera manufacturers are up to their usual mischief: dragging their feet and re-packaging outdated inventories, because their objective (of course, god bless them) is to maximize profits and compete only if they have to. The best example is GoPro, who inexplicably got lavish attention at NAB for throwing a bunch of old Hero4 Black cameras into a cube frame and calling it the Omni at a cost of $5k. They are the same $500 Hero4 toys that we know to blow out highlights, record at pitiful bitrates, use tiny sensors with few (and poor) lens elements, and have the dynamic range of cellphones. You can feed power to each separate camera from a squid at best, then individually offload the six microSD cards, then stitch all of them together in post-production, tediously. Same for 360Heros, though they are developing the first serious option on the horizon because it will leverage arrays of Blackmagic Micro Cinema Cameras, with their log color space, cinema-quality dynamic range, and interchangeable lens mount. Meanwhile, none of the contenders even planned for arrival later this year, from Sphericam to Vuze to Orah 4i to 360fly to Samsung Gear 360, will offer anything much better than webcam quality. Even the $60k OZO is awful. The video that Nokia actually uses to sell it demonstrates just how bad it is: a bunch of webcams in a ball, with gooey color rendition and kindergarten dynamic range.
- VR ISN’T 3D UNTIL IT’S WORSE: Did you think cramming 360 degrees into a flat 16:9 frame is crazy? Trying halving that next, and you will finally add three-dimensionality to VR. Now we’re back to the ’80s when VHS was the best we had. This technology has got a long way to go.
GOOGLE AND YOUTUBE ARE WINNING: So far, the only meaningful delivery platform for VR content (besides downloading big files locally) is YouTube, which has supported desktop VR playback for a while, not to mention Google Cardboard for Android and as of this week, also for iOS. Some of the manufacturers and others have tried getting into the VR streaming provider game, even for a fee, but seriously folks, really? And today, Google launched its “Daydream” VR platform, which combines native operating system integration with the headset product sketched at right that’s an open standard, and affordable compared to the Oculus Rift debacle (setting aside gamerz, of little interest to filmmakers). Samsung stands to be (and deserves to be) punished for trying to wall in their Gear VR platform for boosting Galaxy smartphone sales (greed always backfires), just as they are locking out non-Galaxy phones from their new Gear 360 camera.
- WE NEED SURROUND SOUND: Oddly but not surprisingly, the industry has lacked the “vision” to understand that VR is handicapped without surround sound. If smartphones are the primary delivery mechanism (which can only continue to grow), they have got to add a protocol at some point for multi-channel audio output. Granted, there’s a whole camp of theoretical engineers who contend that special microphones in binaural feeds can effectively create multi-channel space around our heads from stereo headphones, but setting aside that debate, the sound still needs to track our movement on the application side. Lacking a standard on both these hardware and software fronts, we’re screwed for the foreseeable future. Content creators are struggling with how to meaningfully engage viewers back into narrative structures, despite the 100% freedom of movement in VR, and surround sound design (hey, turn your head over here!) is the obvious alternative to drawing a big ugly arrow onscreen. Nobody’s talking about this amid the rush to cash in on the visual gimmick, but it needs to happen…last year.
Clearly my head’s spinning with these new dilemmas of virtual reality that conventional cinematography never had to contend with (or, it’s deja vu). So, I’ve headed further down this Web community path, and built an integrated platform called VRcine. I’m feeding you daily news at www.VRcine.org (where you can sign up for a never-more-than-once-per-day digest), and up-to-the-minute content via the Facebook Page at facebook.com/VRcine, and the Twitter feed @VRcine (and even Google+ if you’re into that). I’ve got playlists for video ON VR and IN VR at YouTube via the short link tube.VRcine.org, whose videos also flow into the social feeds every time they post. And finally, here at the blog, you’ll see a new VR menu up top for drilling into the subject, as I’ll be getting my hands on the newest gear when they come to market, and sharing samples. To start off, here’s something I shot with the Insta360: better than the Ricoh Theta S, but still, eh. I’ll have a full review, and production notes on making this video, up here soon.