Learning to See in 360°.
Indian virtual reality content developers have been active since 2015. Though access to technology and expertise in this fully immersive 360-degree visual environment has improved, it still faces challenges due to limited access to equipment. Yet, virtual reality filmmaking in India is slowly becoming popular.
Besides housing one of the biggest film industries in the world, India is also one of the most important emerging markets for technology products and particularly smartphone technology. With fast growing internet user population, where more than 300 million Indians are using smartphones and approximately 12 pc among them have access to 4G services, one would imagine that new forms of story telling such as virtual reality (VR) would boom.
Usually good at popularising technological innovations, when it comes to VR, India lags behind many countries including China, the US, and Japan. In China, the government backs VR development where it is seen as contributing to an “innovative world economy.” For similar reasons, the US is expected to be the top spender in VR and Augment Reality (AR) in the coming years. In India, while virtual reality is witnessing slow adoption, a mass-level VR impact is not yet visible – neither from a consumer nor an investor perspective.
It seems, however, that the constraints on VR’s reach in India have encouraged creativity. Despite the fact that until recently many VR headsets were not available in Indian stores and most of 360° capture systems are still not available, there are a few creative pioneers in Indian VR filmmaking.
Creating VR Content Despite Odds
For Zain Memon, co-founder of ElseVR, India’s first platform of VR filmmaking, making his first VR film was a real challenge. When he was working on it, in 2015, there were no YouTube tutorials or forums, let alone professionals around him to learn from. Today, he has 10 virtual reality documentaries and other VR projects under his belt.
Among them one is ‘When land is lost, do we eat coal?’ – a film on hazardous mining in central India. He does acknowledge, though, that the VR ecosystem in India is still at a nascent stage. “We have lots of skilled technicians, but that’s about it. We don’t have the capital required to create high-end cinema, we don’t have engineers to create high-end technologies and we don’t have creatives, like they have in Sweden, Norway, the United States or in Japan.”
Shaharbin Aboobacker is a Mumbai-based cinematographer who has been dividing his time between film projects and doing 360° advertisements and music videos, including a VR experience for a Punjabi pop music star, Daler Mehndi. Aboobacker admits that to do VR in India, one has to really be persistent.
“This is a constantly evolving medium driven by technological innovations. While we have been in the forefront of the IT revolution for the past few years, the access to up-to-date technology is limited and most VR capture systems need to be imported. One has to spend large sums of money to procure things without having the options to test them before making an informed decision.”
Magic Window Versus Viewing Headset
Majority of views of virtual reality content still come through magic window – an unintuitive ‘flat’ window on social media or other websites that one can pan around in 360° using a mouse. Or else it’s the 360° effect achieved through moving a smartphone around. For Zain Memon, and other filmmakers, this is a big drawback. “If I need to look at a 2D screen and pan it around, why would I even build the VR content? The idea for me is to transport you into a word that is completely immersive all around you.”
There is limited penetration of VR headsets in the Indian market. Content viewing through a ‘magic window’, which does not give viewers the immersion that VR is designed to offer, is impacting the audience interest in VR in general. For many, the magic window viewing is disappointing and not having watched anything on a headset, they lose their excitement about the 360° format.
The magic window also does not allow the audience to enjoy spatial – ambisonic – sound. Ambisonic sound has become an integral part of VR storytelling as it can direct the viewer’s attention and create a more immersive experience. According to Niraj Gera, a sound designer whose first VR collaboration ‘Jetlag’ was shown at Cannes in 2016, “Being a developing country, technological gaps are imperative in nature.”
Small Audience, Little Content
With no appropriate ways of consuming VR content and hence the audience growing slowly, VR makers bring little content to India. “This situation creates an ugly chicken and egg problem as content creators don’t get content for India because the audience is not there, and the audience is not coming because there is no India-specific content on the platforms,” says Zain Memon. This situation also does not encourage manufacturers to bring new technology to the country.
To encourage people to experience VR and, in the first place, let them know that it exists, Memon and his team set up VR booths during cultural events but also at Mumbai’s metro stations. For Shaharbin Aboobacker, the way ahead has to be paved with educating audience and clients alike. “VR currently has limited platforms for exhibition and monetisation. It takes significant amount of time and energy to educate most Indian clients about the potential advantages of VR but also about its limitations. Most people think the same way as they would for conventional storytelling. VR demands a different aesthetic and thought process.”
An Upward Trend, Nonetheless
Despite virtual reality not booming yet, presence of VR in the country is slowly growing. It will still take time before the headsets are more popular with wider audience, before professional 360° camera manufacturers have their distributors in the country, and before there’s more demand for VR experiences. But first positive signs have already appeared and that too from an unexpected place.
Arka Mediaworks, the firm that produced Baahubali (2015), India’s most expensive film with a budget of EUR 23 million, tied up with AMD Radeon Technologies Group to create a promotional VR experience for the film. It is called ‘Sword Of Baahubali’ and was shot on a purpose-built BB360CC, the most advanced, VR camera ever built, equipped with 32 cameras. But again, it is not available for wide audiences since it has to be watched on a high end HTC Vive headset.
Creators are still waiting for technology to mature, for hardware to be more available in order to create content that can become more mainstream. They all agree that not being part of this evolution would be a lost opportunity.
“Instead of learning to think in 360°, we have to stop thinking in 2D. Thinking in 2D is a learnt behavior while a natural behavior is to think in 360°,” adds Memon. “We need more tools, creators, experiments and audiences reacting to these experiments. That’s how the grammar of a medium is built.”
“India has a huge potential to be a large scale consumer of VR content. People involved in the process can already see things happening. VR will have multiple applications beyond entertainment and I believe this will be a catalyst for growth of VR in the entertainment industry itself,” says Aboobacker. A view that is bound to get a 360° approval.