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I just flew at a hundred feet across Icelandic tundra in a harness strapped under a helicopter. If I lifted my head up, I could see the black-bodied aircraft; when I looked down, there was a galloping herd of wild horses, then a waterfall and some tourists waving at me. Later, I spent some time on Mars, where I took in the bleak landscape and the rocky ground under my feet, but was most struck by gazing up at the sun, weak and cold in the pink sky.
It should be added that I had these adventures in virtual reality on my sofa in London, wearing Samsung’s new Gear VR headset. Retailing at £169/$199, it is one of many similar devices that have appeared recently, and rely on a smartphone for computing power.
Samsung’s headset uses technology from Oculus VR, a company started in 2012 by a home-schooled California teenager with a name that would be implausible in fiction — Palmer Luckey. Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2bn in July. This year, the first Oculus product will be launched and after decades as a futurist’s fantasy, consumer virtual reality may really be with us.
There have been unsuccessful attempts at mass-market VR for 30 years, but with early-adopter products such as Samsung’s, anyone with an up-to-date phone can already enjoy a 360-degree private virtual experience, with visuals that track your head movements without irritating image lag or nausea.
Those who have long awaited VR will know that it has always been associated with hyper-realistic gaming. What is new and startling about VR’s renaissance is that, while games will probably be the genre’s mainstay, the scenarios above were not computer generated, but real video and still photography. The Iceland footage was captured by a cluster of cameras, their output combined by software. The Mars photo came from a panoramic camera on Nasa’s Curiosity rover and similarly manipulated into an all-encompassing view.
Although it is emerging in the shadow of gaming, video VR, also known as spherical video, cinematic VR, 360 video, OmniVision, immersive video and VR film — the genre is so new it lacks an agreed name — could become as big as cinema and television. Video VR startles from the moment people try it, and is for many like an out-of-body experience. It was seeing spherical video, rather than gaming, that reportedly convinced Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to buy Oculus.
Mr Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm is understandable. Fashionable candidates for the next big technological thing, the likes of wearable gadgetry and the “internet of things”, can seem trivial compared with spherical photography. The ability almost to teleport to another place and explore it autonomously is of a different order of impact from wristwatch phones and fridges that track your milk usage.
Video VR has implications for anything now done photographically. It may soon enable you to be an invisible observer “inside” a film scene, or news coverage. Oversubscribed art exhibition? Just wander around remotely, in your own time. Prime minister’s question time? Click to choose the view from Labour or Conservative benches. Enjoy the live-streamed view from the crease at a Test match. Or scout out your holiday destination using travellers’ spherical videos — YouTube has just started supporting video VR.
Predictably, pornographers are already ahead of the video VR curve. Other pioneers are exploring applications as varied as monitoring factories, policing, disaster relief and business meetings. Since Oculus is a Facebook company, it can be assumed that video VR social media is also coming.
Los Angeles video director Chris Milk, who with film-maker Spike Jonze is a leading exponent of the new art of video VR, explains its sudden appearance on the cultural scene as “a perfect storm of emotion and funding. You try it and you feel it in your bones and your soul”. He adds: “You just know it’s a transformative technology — and those don’t go away when they have major technology companies spending sometimes billions on them.”
Mr Milk took a spherical video he and Mr Jonze shot in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, along with 150 Samsung headsets. “We showed it to people selected because their decisions affect the lives of millions of people, but who might not find themselves in such a place, sitting with a family in a camp. But for a few moments one afternoon they were all transported there and you could see they were affected by it.”
One of Britain’s video VR pioneers similarly interested in the form’s implications for news is a former Spectator and Independent journalist, Louis Jebb. His company, Immersiv.ly, shot some spherical video at a Hong Kong pro- democracy demonstration in October.
The mini-documentary was made with six GoPro cameras mounted on a 3D-printed cube. The camera operator dangled it from a sound boom like an oversized garden gnome’s fishing rod, which may sound comical, but the material he captured is deeply affecting, and also informative. If you divert your gaze away from the action around Mong Kok MTR station, you see a normal, busy Kowloon day with buses, taxis and people shopping and realise that the demo was far more contained than might be expected. (It can be downloaded for headsets or viewed less immersively at hongkongunrest.com).
“I believe we will get the gaming generation interested in news through VR because they get a sense that they are proactively controlling its objectivity, that they are not being manipulated,” Mr Jebb explains. “A nephew of mine said, ‘I actually care about the news now I’ve seen it in this way’.”
His team has also filmed Shakespeare in video VR. “It’s the gulling scene from Twelfth Night, where you can watch from the point of view of Malvolio, or next to the conspirators, or as a third party viewer. The sound is 360 degrees too, so when Toby Belch belches behind you, you can look around and there he is.”
A broadcast facilities company at the UK’s Shepperton Studios, Transmission TX, has developed a product called Spherevision and is concentrating on more commercial — and also military — applications for video VR, with clients from carmakers to estate agencies. Even something as mundane as health and safety training can be turbocharged by the technology, according to the group’s commercial director, Steve Lloyd.
“Suddenly people’s interest is heightened by the fact that they’re putting on a VR headset, and when they experience falling off a building, which we did by throwing a camera down, it engages them in a way death by PowerPoint doesn’t,” says Mr Lloyd — whose team also adapted that striking Nasa Mars photo for headsets.
This year is, say the proprietors of roadtovr.com, a leading VR website, the moment of truth for virtual reality. “The Facebook acquisition of Oculus was a pivotal moment in mainstream consciousness,” says Ben Lang. “People are suddenly experiencing what these guys have been raving about since 2012. And it’s light years beyond 3D.”
But his colleague Paul James adds: “As this technology gets better the question may arise of whether some people will ever want to leave their immersive VR world. That’s the potentially darker end of this new world we’re entering.’”