A VR experience during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
If the last five months are anything to go by, the next few should be just as exciting for Virtual Reality.
Various film festivals, such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and even Cannes, have been showcasing many innovative and cutting-edge stories in VR. And it’s not just film festivals who are embracing the technology. Industry trade shows, such as Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show, among others, also featured a large selection of companies with their spherical VR cameras which capture 360-degree content.
When viewed with a VR headset, you’re immersed in experiences that could range from roller coaster rides, city tours, space exploration, underwater adventures, dramatic stories, factual documentaries—even someone’s life.
International acclaim for VR stories
Like that of a single father who’s trying to raise his young daughter, Sara, from a child to a teenager. Watching the years go by in the passenger seat a 1970s hatchback, the experience becomes intimate and emotional as we bear witness to Sara’s growing pains, surrounded by the accompanying soundscape.
It's no surprise that this story, Pearl became the first animated VR film nominated for an Oscar earlier this year. To date, many more similar VR stories have not only gained international acclaim, they have impacted lives, changed perspectives, and won over the hearts of many storytellers.
While the story of Pearl placed the viewer as an observer in the background, others—such as the VR trailer for the movie The Conjuring 2—place the viewer in first person. You’re referred to directly in conversation, and audio cues are even devised to draw your attention.
Compared to traditional medium where storytelling techniques rely much on the frame, it is obvious now that crafting for a 360-degree canvas requires a very different skill set. With a borderless frame that extends all around you, how do you ensure your viewer are seeing what you want them to see? How do you direct their attention? How do you show close-ups? How do you ensure the best experience delivered to the various VR headsets out there?
Media for the next generation
Thankfully, VR stories today—or Cinematic VR, as coined by VR pioneers in the United States—has made a lot of progress for us to learn from. From the creative works like Help by Google Spotlight Stories, Dear Angelica by the now-defunct Oculus Studios, The Displaced and Clouds over Sidra by Within, and many more, animated, dramatic, factual and even a hybrid mix of these genres are showing that content producers see VR as the next source of media consumption for the next generation.
And not just from the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Companies in Asia are also catching up.
A woman tries on Google's virtual reality (VR) device 'Daydream View' at the company's pop-up store in New York last October. (Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Notably, Infernal Affairs, renowned for their hit movie series from Hong Kong, just released a four-episode VR series commissioned by iQIYI, a video streaming platform in China. Mooovr from Seoul is also developing VR content for the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Korea. Warrior9, from Singapore, just returned from Cannes Next VR Library where they showed the first episode of their animated sci-fi VR series, “The PhoenIX.” And my startup--iMMERSiVELY--is also currently involved in both dramatic and factual VR content for telcos and broadcasters.
Adoption is key to pushing forward
The key to developing more great VR stories though, is adoption of the medium by consumers. And that’s where things get tricky. Because as long as things like VR headsets or VR phones aren’t commonly sold, acceptance by the masses will be a challenge.
A scene from an upcoming VR Drama.
Take mobile VR. There is currently only one market leader: Samsung’s Gear VR. With it, the user is plugged into the Oculus store, which offers a variety of choices from content to stories to apps. From the iOS App Store and the Android Play Store, currently the most accessible to the masses, good quality VR content is far and few in between. Therefore, for users to enjoy a great experience, they’ll likely have to buy a Samsung smartphone as a second device (this despite Google’s announcement that is will launch more VR-ready Daydream phones soon). But not many would be willing to make the switch.
So, might headset adoption be the key to seeing more development and production of VR stories from Asia? Or should the distribution of VR content be the focus? While those questions are still being debated, VR creators in Asia are not to be deterred and are pushing ahead to find their voice.
And that is the right move. After all, great content will eventually find its way in the hands—and headsets of viewers, somehow.