How to Make VR Content

LOS ANGELES—New media platforms demand new production methods and none, since the introduction of the pixel, have needed a rework more than virtual reality.

First job of any media content is to engage the audience. Whether it consists of a teenage boy cloistered away with his VR headset, the urban hipster with the latest flavor of augmented-reality glass, or a family at the local theme park’s 360 panorama; if you don’t hook them with something compelling they’ll move on to something that will.

What flavor are you selling?
VR: Contrary to what you’ve probably read or heard, VR is a very finite format and not something that has anything to do with physical cameras. To quote the ubiquitous Wikipedia, “Virtual reality… replicates an environment that simulates physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds and lets the user interact in that world. Virtual reality artificially creates sensory experiences, which can include sight, hearing, touch, and smell.”

AR: Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image over the live view of the physical, real-world environment. The image remains in alignment to the real-world or a pre-defined target as the viewer moves.

PANORAMIC VIDEO: 360 and panoramas surround the viewer with an environment intended to create a sense of presence. They can be “stitched” together from several conventional video streams or by using a fisheye or purpose-build lens. Although 360 has been with us since well before the pixel showed up, the recent media frenzy over VR, combined with low-tech design and fabrication needs, have created a glut of acquisition systems spewing from garages and home workshops all across country. Even though 360 is not VR, it does share a number of the same issues with respect to narrative production.

Why this iteration of VR is different:
Thanks to your tax dollars and the military industrial complex’s need for more accurate real-time targeting, Inertial Measurement Unit, or IMU, technology took a major leap forward. Poised on a tiny chip that sits inside nearly everything from the Predator drone’s AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to your smartphone, the IMUtracker uses a gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS and magnetometer to figure out where it is, where it is looking and where it is going: And this is precisely why VR will work this time.

The Oculus Rift head-mounted display isn’t the about virtual reality—that’s been around since Jaron Lanier coined the phrase back in the early ’80s—or simply figured out how to make the IMU faster. Facebook stepped in and bought Oculus because they understand where this is all going. Motion-to-photons lag is the delay between inputting a command and seeing the effects of that command. For Oculus, that magic number is somewhere under20 milliseconds and even though you can’t perceive it, for the very first time, VR doesn’t make you puke.

The fact that VR gear will play both true virtual environments and panoramas does not mean that 360 video is VR. Your ability to make real VR content is limited by your grasp of CGI and game engines. Good engines are relatively easy to create with and come with an extensive catalog of ready-made sets and props that will get you started without writing a single line of code. There are even fully rendered scenes with controllable characters that you can reverse engineer and modify.

To create a “reality” that lives up to the name, a rather significant number of computer scientists, artists and engineers have been working for more than 20 years to make synthetic characters that are driven by predictive analytics and voiced by prosodically guided phonetic engines that queue emotionally appropriate posture, gesture and empathy scripts.

This is not a pursuit for the faint of heart, but if you’ve got an XBox Kinect, you already have the rudimentary tools to start creating real VR content. Download a demo copy of the Unity or Unreal game engine and get started.

The actual manufacturing process for Augmented Reality content is essentially the same as for VR with the exception that your entire environment is now replaced by and registered to the real world. The true importance of VR is that it is driving the R&D on AR. AR is so important because it is the de facto interface for the Internet of Things. Everything within your field of view will have an AR tag. Think of it as visible Bluetooth gone wild: And those synthetic characters, they will be your semiautonomous, very smart, personalized digital assistants.
Buy a 20-year-old QuickTimeVR camera on eBay or one of the hundred or so 360 systems out there on the market. Good entry style systems are the Sony Bloggie and the VSN v360. For a cinematic quality image I recommend the time-tested Pont Gray, Lady Bug5 that Google has been using for Street View for the past ten years or the Immersive Media, Dodeca, a proven performer for both civilian and military use.

The craft of virtual content:
A very large part of linear narrative is wrapped up in the art of framing. The director, cinematographer, actor and editor all conspire to convey the emotional arc of the actor as they drive their vector along the central theme of the narrative. The problem with VR is that there is no framing. The viewer is free to look around and will most likely be looking the other way at all the major plot points: you’ve lost the narrative. This holds true for VR, AR and Panorama. The narrative must be reimagined.