The Valley has a looming problem. In 2013, Facebook spent $2 billion on the virtual reality headset company Oculus VR, and suddenly, virtual reality—once just a glorified hobby with an unknown ship date—became a real thing with a real product attached, one that's expected to hit shelves in 2016.
So what’s the problem? We know VR video games and sports broadcasts are a sure thing, but what about the $30 billion movie industry? Can the tech industry tap Hollywood's talents to turn VR into a financial juggernaut? And can Hollywood still tell a story when the viewer is the director?
It’s this very question that’s driving valley companies to hire Hollywood creators to pioneer the new medium, like Samsung, which founded its own virtual reality video service Milk VR, to fund and coordinate the production of VR content. With hundreds of millions of Samsung smartphones on the market, Samsung sees an opportunity to turn their own customers into VR junkies, using a relatively simple adapter that glues a smartphone onto a viewer's head.
Overcoming the Technical Problems As Apfel puts it, Milk VR creates "arranged marriages" between companies working on the cutting edge of hardware, like 360-degree camera systems, and companies that are very good at telling stories, like Skybound Entertainment, producers of The Walking Dead. Skybound is producing a secretive new series for Samsung that will premier in 2016.
"We got hands on with these devices and were just posed the question, ‘What would you do with that?’" Makurath says. "It was at that moment, Justin looked at these animated films from Pixar and said, ‘These are amazing, but I don’t do animation. I film live action. I do big action movies with effects and energy. If I were to do something here, I’d love to do a big live action chase movie with a giant monster.’ We could see around the room that everyone was getting excited. They said, ‘That sounds amazing, can you do that?’ In that moment we realized, we were at the beginning of how to create content for these new technologies."
Google hired Bullitt to produce the short, but Bullitt would need to engineer a way film a movie where the viewer could look around, building their own 360-degree VR camera and capture systems, post-production workflows, and playback. The finished master alone was impossibly large 8K x 4K resolution—about four times the resolution of a Hollywood film master. Its 8 terabytes of data would require 160 Blu-ray discs. "That’s a big concern of VR," Marukath says. "You’re dealing with an exponential amount of increase in data required for any given moment of a film."
Indeed, filmmakers have spent the better part of a century developing the language we effortlessly understand when watching a movie. Directors can aim the camera, sure, but they can also create themes through montage, transport the viewer across the world in a second by cutting in on a scene, or stretch one minute of a ticking bomb into 10 minutes of drama. In VR, these tricks don’t exist yet.
As exciting as VR is, there are probably some lessons to be learned from 3D TV: Content, standards and user experience are key.