If any industry is equipped to bring the virtual reality experiences offered by Oculus Rift and other VR headsets to the masses it has to be gaming. Designed with omnidirectional player navigation in mind, video games are practically tailor-made for immersive virtual reality. Introducing VR to the film industry won't be so easy. The equipment really doesn't exist to do it, unless we're talking films with full CGI environments and motion-captured characters as seen in titles like Avatar and Beowulf.
Jaunt, the makers of a multi-lens globe-like camera that can shoot in 3D and with nearly 360 degrees of freedom, are hoping to forcefully push filmmaking into the virtual reality age. In August, Jaunt received nearly $30 million in funding, facilitated in part by Google Ventures.
This past Friday, I had a chance to demo Jaunt footage on an Oculus Rift. The company's VP of content, Scott Broock, served as my guide into this cinematic virtual reality, one hardly even out of the womb at this point.
In the first clip, I found myself positioned at the bottom of a skate bowl, as a skateboarder whipped past me. Broock told me to look in all directions, so I obliged. After a brief moment of nausea—the psychedelic-esque price for entering Oculus Rift's virtual realities—I was able to see how very immersive the experience can be.
It's quite unlike my Oculus Rift experiences with SoundSelf's synesthesia and Conductar's metaversian augmented-VR. The only visible glitch was the region immediately around me, which can't be filmed by the Jaunt camera, owing to the area in which the tripod and camera must be positioned.
Broock then transported me to a Steve Aoki DJ set. Looking from Aoki to the technicians nearby and out into the audience, it felt as though I were there. What's odd about Jaunt's footage, as seen with an Oculus Rift, is the sensation of simultaneously being there but not being there. If astral projection actually exists, this must be close.
I was also treated to select clips from Matthew Gratzner's The Mission VR (New Deal Studios), a World War II film being shot completely on the Jaunt camera. Again, the immersive sensation is undeniable. Viewers will feel literally dropped into the film's proceedings. But, it's also here that the camera's inherent limitations surface.
Whether they know it or not, filmgoers are used to various depths of field, and this holds true whether a movie is shot on film or high-definition video. Characters and objects in the foreground are typically in focus, while the background details are blurred. This directs viewers' eyes to elements of the frame that the filmmaker wants them to concentrate on for stylistic or narrative purposes. As seen in The Mission VR footage, this capability pretty much goes out the window with Jaunt.
To understand why, it's important to know something about the camera's design and operation. With over two dozen lenses protruding out of a gray spherical body, Jaunt's camera looks like something out of science-fiction. It's these lenses, with their overlapping depths of field—positioned to eliminate errors in post-production stitching—that simultaneously record 3D stereoscopic video in all directions. All of this data is loaded into Jaunt's software, which digitally compiles the 3D and 360 degree environment.
In The Mission VR, the camera's design and operation give the film the look of video. The reason for this is simple: Gratzner couldn't swap out Jaunt's factory lenses for the high-powered camera lenses that give feature films their characteristic "cinematic" look. Neither could he control light. Jaunt's omnidirectional design demands that filmmakers either hide the lights (hard to do in a 360 degree scene), or, in the spirit of Stanely Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, use the natural light of the sun or candles.
Given enough time and experimentation on music video and commercial sets, filmmakers might figure out how to creatively hide lights on sound stages, but, even if they succeed, the results could be quite different than traditional film and video cinematography. On the other hand, Broock said that the device responds well to dolly and other non-extreme camera movements, as well as the on-screen motion of human bodies.
Another issue is audio recording. Jaunt offers a 3D sound-field microphone fixed to the camera. It sounds pretty fantastic, especially in the skateboarding scenes, or at the Aoki concert. But, narrative filmmakers traditionally use boom mics to record actors. This just isn't going to happen with the Jaunt camera, as the boom operator has nowhere to stand, unless they're hidden somehow. Alternatively, filmmakers could use lavalier mics, but their sound quality is inferior to boom mics.
For these reasons, and potentially many others, the question then becomes: Will established and would-be auteur filmmakers use Jaunt's camera? Considering that something as stylistically dynamic as David Fincher's Seven or Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void (a film that was VR in its own way) just couldn't be filmed on this, it's hard to predict.
Christensen doesn't seem too concerned, though, explaining that VR will demand a radical new approach to and style of filmmaking.
Despite these drawbacks, the Jaunt camera could find some more immediate use in horror or science-fiction films; genres open to new and exciting cinematic experiences.
And while making Jaunt both a hardware and software VR filmmaking package is smart (easing filmmakers into the field) and so-far necessary, it makes for a somewhat closed technology. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but filmmakers will probably want a few different options. To Jaunt's credit, its developers plan to release new plug-ins and file formats for existing, industry standard post-production software and hardware.
After my demo, Broock explained how Google Cardboard—a $10 headset that works with any Android phone—is positioned to bring virtual reality film and video experiences to the masses right now. After demoing Jaunt footage on Google Cardboard, I wouldn't doubt it, but this would require the Jaunt camera also being in the hands of content creators right now. Price and availability could be stumbling blocks.
If Jaunt wants to enable a wealth of immersive filmed content for Google Cardboard-esque headsets, it needs to be in the hands of independent filmmakers, since Hollywood—always the timid investor—won't exactly be quick to adopt the technology. Christensen told me that the company is working with content partners who are currently in production on a "wide range of cinematic VR experiences."
Will this be enough to deliver on the promise of virtual-reality cinema and video experiences? We'll have to wait and see. My guess is VR film and video content will lag behind gaming. The upside is that Jaunt, like Oculus Rift before it, might motivate others to design and build 3D, 360 degree cameras at various price points. Then we might just begin to see an era of ubiquitous VR films and videos.