Virtual Reality and the Art of the Immersive Experience

Virtual Reality and the Art of the Immersive Experience

August 18, 20151467Views
Eric Cohen
Adorama ALC

Last Friday Adorama hosted a seminar presented by Debra Anderson and Alejandro Dinsmore, two collaborators behind an interesting new documentary titled “In\Formation.” Debra (with her production company datavized) and Alejandro (with his distribution company EEVO) have teamed up to spread the word on the current state of virtual reality technology. Even more intriguingly, they will do so through the very technology discussed in their documentary. You see, “In\Formation” itself can only be experienced through a VR headset.

Debra Anderson discusses her upcoming virtual reality documentary “In\Formation.”

Initially, this brought to mind those on-screen demonstrations you’d pay a few bucks to see at amusement parks and expos, wherea ticket would be exchanged for some cheap cardboard glasses to watch a 3D movie focusing on the history of 3D technology. But, “In\Formation” directorDebra Anderson(the project is also produced by her husband Hugh McGrory) seems more intent on exploring VR’s potential as an “Empathy Machine.” The question of how we approach story-telling within an all immersive medium is intriguing enough. Yet, trying to comprehend how VR affects us on a sensory level opens up additional avenues for exploration.

For one thing, what exactly is the best use for VR technology? Is it strictly for entertainment purposes such as walking through a virtual fun house or playing video games? Or should it be hyped as an education tool, where a realistic training environment is simulated and therefore guides someone towards being a licensed driver, surgeon or soldier? What about the potential for experiencing another person’s point of view? That is, to actually develop empathy towards that POV as a result? Where that potential rests in its ability to make us better human beings?

Glenn Marshall’s artwork “Particle Man” is featured in the documentary “In\Formation.”

Split up in two parts, “In\Formation” allows you to sit among interviews conducted with such VR stalwarts as Nonny De La Peña, James George, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Brian Chirls and Vincent Morisset. The second part focuses on two projects that garnered some attention during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Karim Ben Khelifa’s “The Enemy” and BeAnotherLab’s “The Machine To Be Another.” “In\Formation” presents both titles as examples of VR-as-empathy-machine; the viewer evaluates their experience through that of another. In “The Enemy,” you are in the middle of two opposing views representing each side of a modern day conflict. In “The Machine To Be Another” you are forced to share the stream-of-conscious thoughts of a “performer” while enacting the tasks described by those thoughts. In fact, the goal of either project is best summed up by a statement in BeAnotherLab’s website, “If I were you, would I better understand myself?”

Obviously, we’ve come a long way from the darksci-fi prophecies that were “The Lawnmower Man” and “Strange Days.” However, the most fascinating aspects regarding “In\Formation” might involve the challenges faced while producing and distributing a virtual reality experience. For example, datavized had to construct a rig consisting of twelve GoPro cameras that would simultaneously record footage from all 360-degrees. When stitched together, that footage could be viewed from all angles,from above to below, left to right and front to back. The editing, rather, the “stitching together” of footage presents its own set of challenges particularly when issues of parallax arise. In terms of 3D photography, this is affected by the use of two cameras shooting the same scene but from two slightly different angles. This is supposed to simulate the perception of either the left or right eye. When brought together, the illusion of depth is created ala 3D photography or stereoscopics. With virtual reality, you have the added issue of moving from one camera’s footage that is angled slightly differently to another thus resulting in a look that resembles a fish-eyed lens. Some objects look disproportionately larger than others.

Thanks to the live feed, Adorama’s monitors displayed images of the camera rig created for datavized’s production of “In\Formation.”

Think of how in order to create a perfect, panoramic image you’ve stitched together a collection of photographs shot separately of the same vista. Sometimes each image does not match up due to the slight differences from photo to photo. Now imagine trying to stitch together footage shot of an entire space surrounding your camera. That problem needs to be corrected in post production. And it can be a painstaking process to get it all to work together seamlessly (thankfully,GoPro has created a product built to streamline the workflow. Titled “Kolor,” it was created expressly for this purpose).

Since “In\Formation” is a documentary, it stands to reason additional footage and still imagery is used to provide visual context to the on camera interviews. This brings about the question of how to present imagery intended for viewing as 2D within a three-dimensional, 360 immersive space. It also allows room for creative freedom: the way with which one chooses to include additional media is up to the discretion of the filmmaker. But options for presentation aside, how does one find an audience equipped enough to experience this kind of thing?

During its earliest stages of development, virtual reality seemed to gain some traction as a viable consumer experience but petered out as it was too costly to produce and wasn’t efficient enough to reach its true potential. Sure there existed the Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s attempt at producing a VR device that amounted to no more than a crude, digital take on a Viewmaster. But for awhile, VR was left in the hands of researchers and scientists. That is until very recently, where an affordable headset developed by a young Palmer Luckey entered the stage and came to be known as the Oculus Rift. Since then, Google, Facebook (who took on Palmer’s company Oculus VR in 2014), Samsung (in partnership with Oculus VR) and game developer Valve have thrown their hats into the ring. Thanks to the advancement of mobile technology and LCD screens, VR’s accessibility can now be determined by the amount of accessories needed to add to your Samsung Galaxy or iPhone.

Affordable VR headsets like the Zeiss VR ONE are now available through various retailers. All you need is a smart phone with a large enough LCD screen.

The means to view VR is already at arm’s length (or, more accurately, a slide and finger tap away), but what about the availability of content?

Film festivals have been presenting a multitude of VR projects during the past two years while game developers have been creating immersive entertainment for quite some time. The rub lies in the distribution model. Content can be data heavy, slow to download and sometimes too large to store in the average hard drive. This is why it was so fortunate for datavized to have teamed up with EEVO on “In\Formation.”

EEVO CMO and “In\Formation” collaborator Alejandro Dinsmore addresses the challenges with distributing VR content.

EEVO was formed to develop user friendly distribution platforms for the VR content producer. Although EEVO’s CMO Alejandro Dinsmore laid bare the challenges for projects like Debra Anderson’s documentary during Friday’s seminar, the solution might exist in a media player not unlike that used to stream videos online. It all comes down to the kind of experience the creator wants to illicit from an audience or “user.” For some it would necessitate participating within an art installation like “The Machine To Be Another.” For others it might involve a slightly more passive role like simply watching a movie through a viewing device. Either way, as a technology it’s still young enough where standardizations have yet to be set in place. However, whether virtual reality is used for immersive entertainment, as a tool for education, or as an empathy machine…it finally seems to have some staying power beyond the gimmicky clichés presented in late 20th century science fiction movies.

Eric Cohen has a varied background having worked in Film, Theater and the image licensing industry. He contributes to the pop culture website as both a writer and content creator and produces and co-hosts the irreverent YouTube film discussion show The CineFiles as well as its ongoing podcast. He has also been a freelance videographer, editor and motion graphics designer for six years.