The evolution of the virtual reality experience

BY JACQUI NORTH

My concepts of filmmaking were recently catapulted into a new world. It is no longer enough for filmmakers to capture images to tell a story for audiences to then watch passively on a screen. Technological advances in virtual reality (VR) are creating audience interest in new forms of entertainment and media.

I recently attended The Lab, hosted by Screen NSW in collaboration with Screen Australia, Event Cinemas and the Australian Film Television and Radio School. It is the first stage of a scheme to develop VR and make NSW an industry hub.

VR places you directly inside the experience. Instead of viewing a screen at a distance, the vision is strapped onto your face and you are able to interact within 3D worlds. 360 Vision puts you at the centre of the action, allowing you to look around in all directions, watching content that was recorded simultaneously by a collection of cameras at one single point in space. The developing 3D art form has practical challenges: a heavy headset and that a small amount of camera movement can make you want to vomit!

In VR, battles are being fought about ‘capture’ (how it is shot) and the platform or console on which audiences experience and access the content. We might end up buying several VR devices: Sony can access 36 million existing PS owners when they launch the Playstation VR, and Samsung’s Gear was given away with smartphone purchases in America. The much-hyped HoloLens is an augmented reality device that adds 3D computer-generated scenes to your view of the real world.

Competing technologies aside, what is certain is that VR is no longer a fad. By 2020 the prediction is a $40 billion spend on devices and software worldwide. VR, it seems, will only stop evolving once the experience it provides is indistinguishable from reality.

From my current perspective as the NFSA’s National Documentary Program Deliverables Coordinator, archiving VR and the associated technology to experience it, will be a challenge. Just one five-minute VR project can require up to one terabyte (TB) of data storage. To give you an idea of how much that is, the NFSA’s digital collection is currently growing at around 32 terabytes per month. In total we hold one petabyte of data (1000 terabytes).

The jumping-off point

VR and 360 vision can be a lonely place. You are transported to a special world but remain isolated and contained in a headset and headphones. It’s a solo experience.

In contrast, cinema and television function as a site of modern storytelling: gathered around a campfire, we potentially experience emotions together in real time. Perhaps immersive 3D won’t replace 2D linear storytelling; 3D may function best as an experience rather than narrative. Remember that film itself took over 100 years to develop from the language of theatre.

These were some of the themes discussed at The Lab. Screen NSW’s Courtney Gibson brought together IT and storytellers, working to increase diversity in both the feature film world and the gaming world which she describes as still governed by a ‘white male straight monoculture … It’s a priority for Screen NSW to ensure that, right from the start, people from underrepresented groups are right there swinging in VR so that there’s a diversity of stories told and voices heard.’

Ana Serrano of the Canadian Film Centre urged creatives to ‘start with exploratory narratives, five-minute pieces with the potential for serialisation. Simply being present in the VR world does not equal truth.’

Despite these VR challenges, three new works inspired my storytelling heart. These experiences and more are available for free on Screen NSW’s 360 Vision app. Drama director Rose Troche powerfully uses the immersive first-person capabilities of VR in Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor. First you are the police officer shooting a black man, then the story is retold with you as the black man being shot.

In Collisions, Australian artist Lynette Wallworth transports audiences, including leaders at the World Economic Forum, into the remote world of Martu elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan. Poetic vision is simply narrated by Lynette and Nyarri.

Finally, Clouds Over Sidra, made by the United Nation’s VR two person unit, takes international audiences into a Syrian refugee camp using 360 vision.

There are so many questions. What is the increasing pull towards VR technology telling us about the way we want to experience our own reality? Can we move beyond first-person shooter games? How can we revolutionise storytelling in documentary, drama, live sport, current affairs and entertainment by fusing VR and filmmaking skills? Or will VR become a facsimile experience, akin to Aldous Huxley’s prophecies?

One thing is certain – we are now at the jumping-off point.