Virtual reality: more virtual than real or real than virtual?

Imagine sitting in a front row of a football stadium and watching your favourite club playing or sitting in a VIP box during a music concert. You can look around and focus on any detail you want, feel the atmosphere, enjoy that match or concert but do it all in the comfort of your own home. Wouldn’t that be better than just watching it on your TV, where your view is limited by the choice of angles that the programme director makes?  Dreams or reality? Neither - it’s virtual reality and its coming soon, says Matt Simmonds, Creative Director of Video Content at the Telegraph Media Group.

You can already watch 360 degree videos on YouTube, for instance, where you can see in all directions at once, or experience virtual reality (VR) through a special headset device like Oculus or Google Cardboard. The most common use if VR, however, is in computer games, where you can move the character around in a 3D environment.

“We did a VR project for a car company, where you sat in a seat with the racing car driver who drives around really really fast and you get to experience that and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Another thing is you can do all sorts of branded experiences and branded immersions, for instance it can be a great way of showing what an interior of the building would look like when it’s built, “ says Matt Simmonds.

Broadcasters have already experimented with VR, when journalists and filmmakers like Chris Milk, for instance, made a documentary series about a refugee camp in Jordan or Ebola survivors in Liberia using these new devices. They see VR as a means to break through the screen and reach the hardened hearts of viewers, to try to make them understand what it’s really like to be in those people’s shoes.

Critics say, however, that we shouldn’t get overexcited, that the life cycle of these new technologies is limited and this is only a new toy that will soon outlive itself. They argue that the quality of 360 videos is poor, as the image is blurred near the edges of the screen and that wearing Virtual Reality devices could have side effects like nausea, dizziness or as some suggest could even cause neurological diseases. In fact, the head-set makers like Samsung and Oculus don’t recommend children to use these devices and encourage adults to take at least a 10-minute break after every half an hour of watching.

“Currently the technology, to put it bluntly is crap and it gives everyone some degree of immersion and you can only do it for about 20 minutes, because we’ve not got good enough screens and hardware to play it back on, “ agrees Matt Simmonds. However, he says, the technology is only in its infancy and we shouldn’t discount it just because it’s not yet good enough. “This is like, remember when we first got coloured screens on mobile phones, the screens were the size of a thumbnail, and I think it’s going to take a good 5-10 years to have a good quality of resolution and processing speed to render it before it becomes easy to wear.”

However, Simmonds believes that the future is in VR’s more sophisticated versions like augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) where the line between the real physical environment and computer generated images becomes hardly noticeable.

“Instead of having a computer screen at your desk, you’ll have computer glasses where the computer world hovers into your virtual space, you’ll still be going to be able to see the real things around you, but you will have augmented things around it, motion tracks in real time,” says Matt Simmonds.

“But the technology that will allow you to do that is further away than VR, because you need to have glasses that are small and light enough to wear on your head and need to have processing stuff that is quick enough and fast enough to render photo realistic things in real time, which is not really something we can do yet.”

Whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, accept it or not, virtual reality will become a part of our lives, says Simmonds. It’s not there, however, to replace anything, it’s there to add to our reality.

“This is a really exciting thing, but no one really knows what it’s going to look like. We keep referring to it as: oh it’s going to change film, it’s going to change video games. I think it’s going to change a lot of things we can’t think of currently,” says Simmonds. “We constantly look at 360 video and VR as a kind of a new medium for film and storytelling and those things, but I think that’s a false way to look at it, because it’s not film, not video, it’s something entirely new. Things like editing, camera, frame composition are essentially irrelevant in this new medium. So really, if somebody would say, oh yes, I understand it, I really know what’s going on and I can make VR content, they are lying because we’ve only had it for a few years and history has taught us that it takes some years to work out really what works and what doesn’t.”

To discuss the future of the virtual reality join Matt Simmonds at the Digital Content Summit in London on the 23d of May.



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