Dubai Film Festival explores virtual reality
Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) included a dedicated virtual reality zone with VR films and panel discussions.
made a serious attempt to assess the merits and potential of VR filmmaking. The event included a number of panel discussions on the topic, including one held under the banner: “Is the future really virtual?” The panel consisted of Hollywood filmmaker Lauren Selig, Sam Englebardt, chief strategy officer at The Void and Adam Brenner, VP of marketing at VR tech firm, Otoy. The session was moderated by Elizabeth Daley, Dean of USC School of Cinematic Arts, who brought a healthy overview of the burgeoning industry to the proceedings.
The panel discussed the potential of virtual reality in filmmaking, possible barriers to the development of the nascent format, and how the new medium is stretching the boundaries of film. VR Film Pro was in attendance.
Daley kicked off the session by addressing one of the primary concerns about VR in film; that there is a huge amount of hype but a lot less clarity on where the medium is heading. “I have 500 students now all doing various forms of VR. It’s viral, everyone wants to do it. We are all aware that this is like the beginning days of film, to make a comparison, but we don’t know where it’s going. Should they be doing something else? Is it a novelty? Are we being irresponsible dedicating so much energy and resources to it?” Daley asked in her opening remarks.
For Lauren Selig, co-founder and producer at Shake & Bake Productions and a well-known face in Hollywood, the answer is simple. “I think any form of creativity is worth exploring and the more immersive you can make it, the more VR can be used for education, science and travel. You will be able to have that opportunity to play around with it in a way that feels much more engaging, and it is definitely worth exploring,” she said.
A firm confidence in the future of VR was also to be fully expected from Adam Brenner, representing Otoy, a Los Angeles-based cloud rendering company that is busy designing bespoke VR products. Brenner said that in terms of content, the next generation will be instrumental in defining VR and its trajectory. “It is a huge medium and I am really excited to see all the new kinds of technology. We are creating these tools that the next generation coming up now will inherit and they’re going to figure out what the content is.”
While most people associate VR with gaming and personal viewing in the home, a growing number of VR exponents are lauding its “out of home” social applications. The Void is a prime example. Sam Englebardt, the firm’s chief strategy officer, offered a brief explanation of what The Void does, which proved important to further discussion of the potential commercial applications of VR, particularly in its current early phase.
The Void essentially takes the VR experience to the next level by creating a physical space that the user can move around in and interact with using the latest haptic technologies. This allows users to walk around in their virtual environment, pick up objects and interact with other people and characters in a myriad of virtual worlds. It also represents a cross section between film and gaming that looks set to become increasingly predominant as the medium develops.
“What we’re building is an immersive content experience that’s using VR and other technology. We build this stage and from the top down it looks like a human maze of hallways, rooms and so on, we cover it in an umbrella motion tracking, put you in a headset and backpack with a computer and haptic feedback so you’re really untethered and able to explore this area. We ‘skin’ this physical space with whatever content experience we want.
“Maybe the user will step in and spend 10 minutes exploring an Indiana Jones style temple and solving puzzles inside this temple. With the push of a button, that same space could become a futuristic first person shooting experience,” he said.
Last year The Void built an installation in New York in partnership with Sony allowing small groups to take part in a Ghost Busters-themed VR experience in which they move around a haunted house as full-fledged ‘ghostbusters’.
“The number of experiences is only limited by what you can create in VR to place in the physical space that we have built. You build the stage once and you build a large library of content experiences and you allow people to go through these different adventures,” Englebardt said.
From a commercial perspective, Englebardt said that this format makes sense as users, especially younger people. They appreciate the “out of home” experience and also get the chance to use the latest VR technology worth in the region of $20,000. “The Void’s approach to VR is to build an ‘out of home’ experience. It’s a retail experience and we can build the highest-end technology. When you come to The Void it’s a case of ticket sales versus having to wait for that moment where this level of technological experience is available for people to experience in their homes,” he adds.
As a producer, Selig is also familiar with the commercial concerns that accompany VR. “My traditional background was technology and I worked at Microsoft in acquisitions, so I look at VR from a ‘does it make sense for business and finance perspective’,” she said.
“When I look at a project we want to finance or get involved in VR, we look at what the audience wants from this; how much are they going to pay for it, how they are actually going to watch it.”
Selig adds that while the VR community may understand or “get” VR, for most people it is brand new. As such Selid says that she is keen to find VR-related companies worth investing in. The content and platforms they produce could represent “the next version of TV or theatre” she adds.
Asked about the likely drivers of VR film in the next 18 months, Brenner said that a key element is the ability of content to engage people in a meaningful way. “As soon as you have a pierce of content that you can react to and feel changed by you will gravitate towards it and then everything else is about getting headsets into people’s hands,” he said. And to hammer home the importance of headsets, Brenner asked how many audience members had a VR headset with them. The answer? None.
Brenner added that Google Cardboard has helped make headsets more widespread and Samsung Gear VR has brought a decent quality to consumers for a relatively low price, and there are more headsets to enter the market soon with Apple and others expected to enter the fray in the coming quarters.
On the subject of headsets, Englebardt said that it was mobile phone technology that had really spurred the commercial development of VR. “If we’re talking about the big scale that you have in mind, mobile has created this wave of VR in the first place. The only reason we’re all talking about VR now and experiencing it in a way that is interesting is because of what mobile phone technology has done to allow it, whether it’s the screens, the better processors, the batteries – all of that stuff is because of the miniaturisation of this technology.”
Selig added that a breakthrough in the VR industry will come when headsets become slimmer and less obtrusive. “The game changer is going to be when we’re not worried about this clunky headset that we have on, and it becomes more embedded into our everyday usage and doesn’t feel as disorienting.”
At that point users should feel like they’re experiencing something new and real but without the feeling that something (a clunky headset) is getting in the way of everyday life. “That is where AR and VR may come into play together and that’s where it could become a much more engaging experience for everybody and you don’t need to have your hand held out as you’re going through it.”