The Future of VR — A Roundtable Discussion

by Graham Edwards

Cinefex VR RoundtableEarlier this year, Cinefex published The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, an in-depth look at the current state of play in the virtual reality industry. In the course of writing the article, we spoke to over 20 VR professionals and amassed around 80,000 words of interview transcript.

Looking back through the wealth of material that didn’t make the article, we thought how great it would have been to get all those people physically round a table together. An impossible task, of course. But maybe there was a virtual solution …

And here it is. The following conversation is made up of choice extracts from all those interviews, woven together to create something unique: a virtual roundtable discussion attended by our own special assembly of VR dreamsmiths.

CINEFEX: So what is virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Virtual reality is an immersive experience that you can’t get in any other form of media. I view it as sort of an amalgamation of cinema and theater.

PATRICK MEEGAN: I agree it’s like theater in that everyone on stage has to be active in the scene, there is no framing out someone and then cutting back. That is pretty critical to virtual reality capture, because you’re doing much less editorial and everything can be seen.

CINEFEX: Cinema … theater … what about games?

LOGAN BROWN: Video games provide huge insight into how to guide users to interact with the virtual world. However, the gap between gamers and non-gamers can pose problems for developers. How do we make an experience challenging enough for a gamer who is familiar with interactive input, and yet easy enough for a non-gamer to enjoy without frustration?

TOM VANCE: Of course we are going to bring things to the table from theater and film and television, and of course we are going to bring gaming into the picture. The exciting thing is how we turn those things into a new way to tell stories.

CINEFEX: So it’s all of these things combined?

ARUNA INVERSIN: Well, I actually think virtual reality is a new medium. It’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not the internet — and those are the three main consumption modes that people have right now. And within those modes there are so many avenues other than entertainment — there’s action, interactive, passive, live-stream, educational, medical … these are avenues that haven’t even been tested yet in virtual reality.

ROBERT STROMBERG: I agree that it’s a brand new medium, with an unwritten rulebook on how to tell stories. I’m fixated on that particular aspect of it — how to get real actors in real situations, with real emotional scenes.

CINEFEX: You talk about a rulebook. Do the rules of cinema apply to virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Yes, because you are still telling a story. Gamers who put on a headset are going to be very active, obviously, but for most people who watch content, yes, there’s that initial moment where they say, “Oh wow, this is really cool,” but you’ve got this diminishing curve where people then say, “I just want to be entertained.”

ALEX HESSLER: We do have a lot of techniques in cinema that we know how to use to steer the viewer, but unfortunately those techniques don’t generally work in virtual reality. But, there’s a whole batch of other techniques that people are only just discovering, and I do think working in film gives you that mindfulness and that curiosity about observation that is really important for designing virtual reality.

CINEFEX: Is there still a place for traditional job roles — do you still need a director of photography, for example?

BEN GROSSMANN: There is absolutely a role for a director of photography, but it is a completely different thing. It’s funny when we see a director of photography operate in virtual reality for the first time. They are focused on staging the scene in one direction, and they get frustrated when they put somebody else in the headset and the first thing that person does is start looking in every other direction! It’s like going onto a movie set and giving the camera to a 12 year-old child! The hard part is wrangling the audience into looking where you want them to look, in order to catch the part of the story that you want them to catch. You do that by lighting, by sound, by emotional interest — and that language has yet to be codified.

CINEFEX: How do you go about doing that?

SEBASTIAN MARINO: There’s all these rules of virtual reality that everyone seems to want to make, but as far as I can tell, they’re all things you’re not allowed to do. I personally reject that — it’s just horrible. It’s way too early to make a list of things you can’t do. You just have to build a world that is self-consistent. If you do that, I think you can use all sorts of techniques and make something that looks really interesting.

CINEFEX: So can it actually be a hindrance, holding onto the old ways?

ANDREW MCGOVERN: It’s always a learning curve when you move into a new format, especially with virtual reality. At the same time, people love the freedom that it gives.

PHIL TIPPETT: I think it links in somewhat with the creative process. Throughout the course of a career, you build up your skills as a craftsman, and you have a certain way of going about doing things. But then, once you have created something, you kind of need to forget it, so that there’s room for another idea. It’s like intentionally trying to figure out a way of not falling into the franchise trap. The next thing that you do has got to be something worth doing because it’s different.

ARTHUR VAN HOFF: If you get a Hollywood director to do virtual reality, they’re going to use all the same language, and it’s just movies in virtual reality. Then you have some people that go completely crazy — they put actors all around you, and you have to swing your head around like a madman to follow a conversation. Then there’s where I think most of the action is, which is the young, upcoming directors who have something to prove. There are tons of people still at film school, experimenting with GoPros, who are going to be the Steven Spielbergs of virtual reality.

SASCHKA UNSELD: I actually think the longer people have worked in film, the harder it is for them to switch away from the ways of thinking that they have. The younger people are, the more easy it is for them just to embrace the newness of this medium. The wave of experiences that we’ll see from people who have virtual reality as their first way of expressing themselves, and not as their second or third … I think that wave will be enormous.

CINEFEX: What about visual effects artists — are they generally well adapted to working in virtual reality?

AMY SMALL: A lot of our people at Framestore have adapted super-well, but they all tend to resonate in different areas, depending on what their backgrounds might be. So we look at a project when it comes in, and then try to match the creative who makes the most sense with the project.

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think some visual effects artists don’t want to go into the 360-degree world. But then, every artist that I bring on is new to virtual reality in some form. Everybody’s learning it for the first time.

CHRIS HEALER: As our own toolset has matured, our artists have all pretty much consistently warmed up to virtual reality. They’ve gotten past the tech and math, and they are now into creative thought. But it took time, and the ones who were cold to the idea needed to warm up by seeing other people’s excitement and other people’s success. It’s cool to see that transition.

LOGAN BROWN: The person who adapts well to working in virtual reality is likely someone who embraces the unknown and is persistent enough to work through setbacks. Everything is so new, and there are so many major areas still unexplored. A strong creative willing to wade into the deep end of bleeding-edge technology can make a huge contribution to the medium.

SEBASTIAN MARINO: I really don’t know how you do virtual reality coming purely from a Silicon Valley background. If you’re not used to dealing with artistic criticism, you’re in for it.

CINEFEX: Is the technology anywhere near mature yet, or is there a lot more innovation to come?

SIMON ROBINSON: We’re trying to improve the number of products that we have that make previewing virtual reality very easy. That’s really just an engineering challenge to make sure that output into a headset is as simple as output to a flat screen. But, we are interested in how toolsets in the future might be completely immersed. I think that’s a fascinating challenge for us — if artists wore the headsets full-time, would that fundamentally change the way they did their work, and would you then have to engineer products for media in a completely different way to the way you do them now?

ROBERT STROMBERG: The equipment will get refined, smaller, sexier. Then there’s the social aspect — the option to experience something where you can look over and see your friend, like you do in a movie theater. I think that’s all going to become very standard.

OLLIE RANKIN: But it’s wrong to assume that the virtual reality headset is the final viewing platform. I think the headset is kind of like the laser disk — something that was, at the time, the best way of storing and playing back video but was superseded quite quickly. Just don’t ask me to look into the crystal ball and tell you what is going to replace it!

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think the next big revolution is the software experience. In the next year or two, we’re going to see some really great software that leverages touch controllers, hand controllers and motion controllers. We’re going to see people develop software that allows collaboration in the virtual reality space.

MICHAEL BREYMANN: There are all kinds of analytics and data that can be gathered and processed based on your eye movements, so there is both a scary and wonderful world coming for virtual reality. It’s almost like when you put on sunglasses — you feel a little bit protected because nobody can see where your eyes are, but you have the privilege of gazing wherever you want. In virtual reality you also have that feeling because you’re in your private little box, and you feel safe. But, with sensors and tracking technology you are very much not safe. The things that enables are kind of like science fiction.

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Everybody on Wall Street is going to make money trading paper on the newest virtual reality tech, but that is all meaningless if we are not creating content that the general public is going to download and buy. We need to start investing much more heavily into content, otherwise virtual reality will be just a fad, destroyed because it was overly hyped.

CINEFEX: Is that a real risk — that virtual reality is going to crash and burn?

RAY TINTORI: You know, I think virtual reality is the future, but I actually don’t think it’s an entertainment medium. People think it’s going to have a trajectory like 3D movies, but I feel like virtual and augmented reality is more like the internet — there are so many practical applications that it’s just going to become a part of a lot of stuff that we do, in an invisible way.

CLINT KISKER: Yes, in the future, I think virtual reality will be invisible. It will just be a part of the way that we work, consume stories, learn, travel, buy homes. How all of that will work from a consumer interaction standpoint, I couldn’t say. But I do believe that my son and daughter will not see anything unusual about a persistent virtual world that exists attached to their Vive or their PSVR, that they can check in on at the end of the day.

PATRICK MEEGAN: Right. We will eventually be looking at the virtual reality and augmented reality spaces as a single continuum, creating experiences that can accommodate elements of the real world, but then completely obfuscate the real world and transport you into a virtual one.

CHRIS MORLEY: I think that’s a philosophical question for anybody who wants to put on those goggles! It’s a multi-faceted technology. I see use in medical training, in theme parks — you could have a ride but then have different content for different people, so that they can choose what they want to experience. I think it’s going to be everywhere in the end. It runs the gamut.

CINEFEX: So we’ll all soon be fully immersed in a totally fabricated world?

JOHN GAETA: We can talk all day long about super-complex futuristic scenarios, but we’re a long way away from being Neo running through the back streets in The Matrix. But, it’s not impossible to see a dot between now and then. The next step is to figure out what is the right first thing for us to try to do, so that virtual reality is a joyful, positive, enlightening experience. Being in a cinema is a very powerful form of immersion. People remember things that happen in film so strongly that they carry them throughout their whole lives. It’s natural for us to think that way now about virtual reality. We want people to be able to say, “I stood inside this moment, and I saw these characters up close, and it gave me an emotional reaction.” Hopefully, that will happen not too long from now.

CINEFEX: People say that working in virtual reality right now is like being in the Wild West. And here you all are, riding your wagons along the trail. How does it feel?

RAY TINTORI: You know, virtual reality is so funky right now. It’s like using leeches or medieval technology — everything is jaw-droppingly advanced and embarrassingly clunky at the same time. In five years, everything that we’re doing now is going to feel silly, because there’s all this stuff that just hasn’t been invented yet.

ROBERT STROMBERG: Sometimes it feels like we’re in the early days of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. I know that’s dramatic, but it really is a very inventive time.

BEN GROSSMANN: Well, I have always enjoyed being an explorer, and the landscape of virtual reality is certainly unexplored. There are no rules written, no language that has yet been defined, and no leaders. There are no legendary filmmakers in whose shadow we all stand. So we’re getting back some of that passion that we had in the early days of visual effects, when we were figuring things out for the first time.

Thank you to all the dreamsmiths on our virtual reality roundtable:

  • Michael Breymann — co-founder, Kaleidoscope VR
  • Logan Brown — virtual reality producer, MPC
  • John Gaeta — executive creative director, ILMxLAB
  • Matthew Gratzner — creative director, New Deal Studios
  • Ben Grossmann — chief executive officer, Magnopus
  • Chris Healer — chief executive officer, The Molecule
  • Alex Hessler — virtual reality supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Aruna Inversin — creative director, Digital Domain
  • Clint Kisker — co-founder, Reality One
  • Sebastian Marino — co-founder and chief technical officer, Evercoast
  • Andrew McGovern — vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Digital Domain
  • Patrick Meegan — creative director, Jaunt
  • Chris Morley — visual effects supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Ollie Rankin — head of production, Uncorporeal Systems
  • Simon Robinson — chief scientist, The Foundry
  • Amy Small — global head of virtual reality, Framestore
  • Robert Stromberg — co-founder and chief creative officer, VRC
  • Ray Tintori — director and visual effects supervisor
  • Phil Tippett — founder, Tippett Studio
  • Saschka Unseld — creative director, Oculus Story Studio
  • Arthur Van Hoff — co-founder and chief technical officer, Jaunt
  • Tom Vance — head of content, Jaunt

Photograph courtesy of Magnopus.

4 thoughts on “The Future of VR — A Roundtable Discussion

  1. I’ve only read the roundtable (not had a chance to read the Dreamsmiths magazine article yet) but it seems to me this panel really needs some input from game developers.

    I mean kudos to Cinefex for asking “what about games?” but, with the exception of Brown and Vance, most of the subsequent responses suggest a total lack of awareness of the past 30 years of interactive entertainment, like the last videogame they played is Pac-Man…

    “The hard part is wrangling the audience into looking where you want them to look, in order to catch the part of the story that you want them to catch. You do that by lighting, by sound, by emotional interest — and that language has yet to be codified.”

    It hasn’t though. That language already exists. Watch just about any GDC lecture ( from the last 10-20 years on game- or world design and you’ll find ample discussion of how to direct players down certain paths, how to guide their eyes with light and sound and composition in an open explorable space, or with action and reaction from Non-Player-Characters… much of which, it should be noted, adapted from cinema to suit an interactive context. Games have learned much from film, but maybe now it’s your turn to learn from games.

    Virtual reality is by its nature *interactive*, not passive. You speak of future advances in VR coming from tomorrow’s Spielbergs but I think they will come from independent game developers who understand interaction, or indeed those filmmakers who choose to embrace interactivity and let go of linear storytelling.

    Rather than “I stood inside this moment, and I saw these characters up close”… make it “I was there” and “I *did* these things and made these choices”, “I explored those places”. THAT’S the power of games and that could be the power of VR as well.

    [/end rant]

    My hope is filmmakers and game developers both will learn from each other and work together to create amazing interactive experiences that push the boundaries of what is possible in virtual worlds.

    • Anyway, sorry if that comes off as overly critical but I think any discussion of VR that doesn’t include games is missing half the picture. My 2 cents.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Christiaan.

      This online article is sort of a spin-off from the main magazine article, which is very much about the experiences of visual effects professionals transitioning from cinema to VR, reflecting Cinefex’s primary focus on motion pictures. So yes, there’s a strong emphasis here on 360-degree films and seated experiences and not so much about game-related issues. As you know, VR a huge topic, so we had to narrow it down somehow.

      However, in the magazine article many of our interviewees do indeed talk about building teams that draw from both disciplines, and of the cross-pollination that’s happening as they develop hybrid techniques to explore what many believe to be an entirely new medium. It’s a brave new world!

      • Good to hear! And I totally understand the more cinema-centric angle given the focus of the magazine. Just felt the emphasis on observation over interaction was kind of a common theme in VR discussions and thought I’d offer an alternate perspective. I will definitely read the main article.

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