Lucas Wilson on the Nuts and Bolts of Virtual Reality (VR)


Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of the VR company Oculus was a wakeup call. It said to the world that VR was going to be a thing, because the people behind the biggest social network in the world were going to make it a thing. People may have seen this song and dance before, with the failed experiments of the late 20th Century still in their minds, but this is different. Computers have gotten more powerful, capture systems more effective, and everything has gotten cheaper.

In a talk at The Studio at B&H Event Stage for NAB 2015, VR producer Lucas Wilson spoke about his experience in VR production and post production. He talked extensively about the cheapest VR solution, and what it means for the future of the medium.

In 2014, Google announced “Google Cardboard,” and gave attendees at their I/O conference a little cardboard box. They put their cell phones in that board, downloaded the accompanying app, and suddenly their cell phone was a VR headset. There are more than 100 apps on the Google Play store (and more than 50 on the App Store), and they work with that $15 box.

There are other Google Cardboard headsets, many of which are made of more premium materials, like the Zeiss VR One. It’s effectively a high-quality Google Cardboard system with a few extra apps specifically designed for it. And though Zeiss has only officially released compatible trays for the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5, the company has released CAD files for the Galaxy S4, Google Nexus 5, and LG G3. Anyone with one of those phones and a 3D printer can print their own trays.

The Samsung Gear VR is the next step up, a headset designed specifically to take advantage of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4’s impressive specs and beautiful screen. Samsung teamed up with Oculus to create an app ecosystem specifically for the Gear VR.

And then, of course, there’s the Oculus Rift headset. Currently available is the Development Kit 2, which, as its name suggests, was created for developers. And though it’s not consumer-oriented hardware, it is still available directly from Oculus. Unlike the smartphone companions, the Rift requires the user to be tethered to a computer, but with that limitation comes increased power in the hardware and more options afforded by various input devices. Oculus is working on the consumer version, as well, and the company’s latest kit—code-named Crescent Bay—has shown off where this technology is headed. Unfortunately, it’s not available for purchase, but it all points to a bright future for the company.

Other systems, such as Sony’s Project Morpheus or HTC Vive, powered by gaming monolith Valve’s SteamVR platform are in the works, as well, each offering its own vision for the future of digital media.

But even the cheapest VR system is worthless without a steady stream of content. Content is king. But that’s where things get exciting for budding filmmakers, photographers, or app and game developers. Not only have the delivery systems gotten cheaper, but so have the systems required to create those deliverables.

Wilson spent the bulk of his talk at the Event Stage explaining how an experience gets from the real world to the consumer’s headset, but he started at the end with a surprising fact: a VR video is an .MP4 file, just like any other.

Well, sort of. It doesn’t quite look like your average video file, but that’s because it’s representing a 3D experience in two dimensions. It’s like a map of the earth. Only a globe will give you the real sense of what the earth looks like, but there needs to be a 2D basis for that 3D image. It’s not a perfect analogy, as 2D maps are skewed to be more readable (although less accurate), but its purpose is the same.

A VR camera rig can be purchased, rented, or even 3D printed. For many filmmakers, GoPro cameras are enough. Companies like 360Heros have setups made for this exact purpose. You record the videos like you would any other, bearing in mind that everything is going to be visible. (Wilson believes that a device like the Ricoh Theta, despite its low image quality, is crucial for filmmakers trying to get a sense of what their final product will look like.)

These files are then stitched together using programs like Video-Stitch or Kolor’s Autopano Video. From there, you have the weird-looking video file, ready for color and, if necessary, VFX. Currently, Nuke is the go-to solution for doing VFX in VR, but Wilson cautioned that it is definitely more challenging than creating something on a 2D image, or even a static 3D one. For color correction, there’s Assimilate Scratch, and that’s about it. Scratch works directly with the Oculus Rift, allowing one user to see the digital world in real time while another person uses the color-correction software to affect change as necessary. As people become more comfortable working with the distorted images, though, this process will only become easier. Wilson mentioned a friend who works in 3D video who can accurately judge depth just by looking at an anaglyph image. It’s likely that the best of the best in VR post production will have similar abilities down the line.

According to Wilson, it’s the audio that’s really complicated. The traditional shotgun mic simply won’t cut it. Rather, projects require special microphones that replicate human ears, such as Mitra Corp.’s 3D Mic Pro. You may only have two ears, he says, but you can sense the subtleties of direction due to the miniscule differences in timing that a sound takes to get from one ear to the other. The microphone must be able to replicate these subtle differences, and it must also accurately respond to the movement of the user’s head. But it just requires a new set of skills, and all of the work can be done in Pro Tools, just as with any other project. Alternatively, designers can place sounds in a 3D audio space using technologies like Dolby’s Atmos, created for use in cinemas but now more broadly applicable to VR films as well.

These are the early days of the VR revolution. Wilson calls it the “Wild, wild West,” noting that there is no perfect workflow or flawless system. Some people use GoPros, others arrays of RED Dragons. Still others work in purely digital environments. But all of these people are pushing boundaries, working on an inarguably fascinating technology that has the potential to revolutionize media as we know it and the world as we experience it. It’s no longer prohibitively expensive to experience VR, nor is it impossible for people without studio budgets to shoot it. It’s an exciting time for everyone. Here is a new medium for telling stories, being built up before our very eyes. Now is the perfect time to take advantage of it.

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