Co.Create

8 Tips For Making Virtual Reality Viable

Mike Woods from Oscar-winning VFX company Framestore discusses the creative and technical issues to confront before entering the virtual world.

Virtual reality is here to stay. Facebook confirmed that with its mega purchase of Oculus. But now that the dust has settled, how do we educate brands, content creators, and marketers how to use it?

Unlike many other zeitgeist-busting pieces of tech that arrive on the scene, VR brings with it an entirely new language of storytelling. We're creating a new form of narrative that includes the viewer. This becomes a strange hybrid of first-person shooter game and an almost Brechtian approach to live theater (think Sleep No More or Secret Cinema). It’s resulted in a very different set of rules to learn, and, consequently, some perilous pitfalls. That’s something I’m grappling with every day at my own company, Framestore, as we pioneer launching a full-fledged VR and Immersive Content Studio.

For others who are even just considering dabbling in VR, here are eight considerations to aid your production and business process and help you understand how to use the medium correctly.

Oculus Rift VRImage: Flickr user BagoGames

Is my brand/product/story relatable to VR?

The biggest mistake in marketing is to jump on a bandwagon when the tech isn’t suitable for your message. VR allows you to immerse yourself a full 360 degrees into a world. You want to be able to explore slowly and comfortably. Exploring a product or experience close to hand or eavesdropping on a narrative could be perfect. But trying to force a fast cut, linear story, like a film or commercial, is 99% impossible.

After determining that VR is appropriate, the next step is picking the right projects. That can be difficult to weigh for risk-averse business managers, especially with a technology that’s still testing the waters of mainstream adoption. Choose wisely for your first project: start with an audience and/or a venue that has a dedicated, yet broad following (big events like SXSW, for example, are great launching pads); from there, you’ll see adoption naturally grow. Or, unexpectedly insert the technology into a daily human setting, allowing people to experience how it can seamlessly assimilate into everyday life.

This isn't film

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it's film. Don’t assume that traditional “directors” can use VR. VR won’t allow many standard filmmaking techniques. There is no frame! Cuts, pulling focus, grades, and camera movement are all either impossible or extremely problematic. The 100-year-old established rules of classical narrative and “mise en scene” won’t work.

So, how do you appropriately staff a VR project? Again, don’t box yourself in to just directors. Getting VR right requires a variety of skill sets--from strategy to design to digital. Be entrepreneurial within your organization and grab employees from every discipline to play a role. The technical aspects are important, but the nature of immersive storytelling can benefit immensely from multiple perspectives.

Image: Flickr user Luca Bolatti Guzzo

Approach live action with care

You can shoot with a stereoscopic camera, but it has its problems. Whatever you shoot, you’re stuck with. Even with a 360-degree ball camera rig, you’re tied to the position the camera is in and it’s lighting; and it can give the world a strange, goldfish bowl appearance.

Ultimately, the Oculus Rift was originally aimed at a gaming audience. There’s a reason for this. Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and others allow you to move around in any direction you please. This is key to VR, and this protects against motion sickness. It’s why using real-time rendering game engines is still the optimal way to create a brilliant VR experience.

Game engine use is particularly heightened with the release of the new Oculus Rift DK2, which has head tracking, meaning you can lean forward and backward and peer over and around. While game engines can utilize this, shooting with cameras cannot. At Framestore, we’ve developed a hybrid technique that allows you to composite shot footage into fully stereoscopic game engine CGI. We feel this is the future of VR, and it’s not too far removed from how we made Gravity.

No movement unless absolutely necessary

Camera movement works when it’s controlled in a smooth and simple way. Unfortunately, it’s much harder than you think, because you can’t see your hands. The big elephant in the room with current VR development is that even though it’s aimed at gamers, 99% of existing games would make you feel nauseous within seconds.

However, if you can see the defined direction you are moving in (a walled corridor, for example), this can improve the experience. Even though some "walking" devices will launch soon, they’re in early development; safety is a big issue when you’re literally blindfolded to the real world.

Game Of Thrones, Ride Up The Wall

High performance is key

If you're creating an entirely 360-degree, interactive world, at close to photoreal quality, you need some sizeable computer grunt. For our Game of Thrones activation, we had to build our own machines that could satisfy the needs of a smooth experience. Ultimately, if you want an experience that doesn’t suffer any lag or latency as you look around, then you need to be operating in excess of 60 frames per second and try and hit at least 4K resolution. This is a considerable requirement!

Use sound and video cues to control the direction of the user's gaze

How can you be sure your viewer is looking in the correct direction to see the important things you want them to see? This requires some serious thought. Binaural sound cues can work brilliantly; having a conversation start that makes you turn your head can work, if you allow time for the turn.

Don’t rush the content

When James Cameron made Avatar, it had far fewer cuts than similar Hollywood action blockbusters. Gravity was the same. This is because really immersive stereoscopic 3-D requires its viewers to explore a scene. VR takes this to its ultimate level. If you're actually in a place, not only would cutting make no sense whatsoever (and look and feel ugly), but your ability to look around and “explore” is increased tenfold. For a recent VR experience, we allowed the public at least 15 seconds to look around and feel comfortable with their new surroundings before kicking off any narrative. All content in VR has to be played out in a similar, realistic way.

Image: Flickr user Matti Piiroinen

Use 4-D elements to heighten the experience

Real sensory hits to accompany your VR headset can truly enhance a VR experience. Smells, tastes, wind machines or rumbling floors can all massively impact on a feeling of “presence.”

This incredible new medium will take some getting used to. It's a previously unfathomable level of immersion, which requires incredible amounts of testing. During our Game of Thrones project, we re-wrote the execution five or six times. We were testing up to 10 different VR “virgins” every day of production, as we had to see whether the narrative we set out could be followed intuitively.

This is a brave step for marketers and content creators. Freeform narrative interactivity needs careful thought before it becomes a good channel for a message; but if you have a story to tell, it’s a brilliant opportunity.

Mike Woods is head of digital at Academy Award-winning visual studio Framestore.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]

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