VR’s Wide-Open Future

From left: David Cohen, Richard Nockles, Bryn Mooser, Danfung Dennis, Aaron Luber and Niko Chauls

A discussion of virtual reality Tuesday was one part tech panel and one part social activism discussion, with panelists guaranteeing — virtually — that VR can change the world.

But first, there’s a lot of work to be done. For example, panelists for the General Session “Being There — Virtual Reality News and Documentaries” said VR is evolving so quickly that words aren’t quite able to explain it.

“A lexicon doesn’t exist,” Niko Chauls, director of applied technology at USA To- day Network, told moderator David Cohen of Variety.

Chauls said common camera and video terms like “cropping” don’t exist yet in the realm of VR, and the current generation of shooters is creating the language as they go along.

One thing seems clear, though: VR videos are emotional because viewers witness places and events in their totality, and they’re seemingly there.

Richard Nockles, a VR creative director for Sky, described an instance in which a VR camera was placed on a battlefield, so that viewers could see combatants from both sides. The result, he said, was too raw to be widely viewed. “You were scared for the [camera] operator,” he said.

VR videos create empathy, they agreed, and all of them seemed intent on using VR to document to the world the plight of the less fortunate.

“We really do have the ability to put people right in the heart of things,” said Aaron Luber, head of partnerships for Google VR, whose Google Cardboard VR viewers were given away to audience members. Google is actively involved with pushing forward the technology, and a new seamless VR camera called Jump.

Some panelists believed that a narrator has a new and crucial role with VR projects, acting almost like a tour director pointing viewers to various places in the camera’s wide view. An alternative is a graphical overlay noting important details. Those are tricky details, said Bryn Mooser, co-founder of Ryot, who is as passionate about VR as he is about using it as a tool of social activism.

He pointed out the narrated VR doesn’t really work when the viewer sees it on a smartphone or on Face- book, where video plays without sound, but it is perfect for YouTube.

Danfung Dennis, CEO and founder of Condition One, who has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, recalled talking to a woman after she had seen “Factory Farm,” an up-close look at the hidden world of big-time pig farmers, which his company helped produce. “She told me, ‘I had an idea where our food comes from. Now I really know.’”

The marvel, he said, is that VR can seem- ingly come close to showing the “reality” of a pig being led to slaughter.

The technology of VR is expanding so rapidly. “It’s like night and day from 12 months ago,” Google’s Luber said. “And it will be like night and day 12 months from now.” Panelists envisioned a VR player that will fit like a contact lens — maybe as soon as a year from now.

Dennis said he has perfected a camera that can auto-stitch together all the videos that make up a VR, and  Google says it has one, too. Generally, that laborious task takes up most of the post-production time. But as far as VR has come in a few years, “It’s still in- credibly limited,” Mooser said.

And everybody is still learning. “It’s a new medium,” said Chauls. “We have to examine the basics of storytelling” in a new way.

He offered neophyte VR shooters some advice. “The first three things you [shoot], don’t publish!” he said. And buy the newest equipment, even as it improves rapidly. “You can’t afford it,” Chauls said, “but you have to.”