We often get the question “when Virtual Reality will conquer the market?“. Our answer is easy: many bottlenecks need to be solved first. It is important that companies who work with innovative media actively engage in this problem solving. We should not only focus on creating projects in today’s standards, but also look at the obstacles within Virtual Reality and actively search and create solutions.
In this article we pick five stumbling blocks of Virtual Reality we encounter a lot. These problems often form a bottleneck in the production or distribution phase of Virtual Reality or a 360 video production. You can see a lot of projects not meet their goal targets or goals, because the people involved were not aware of these bottlenecks. So you should not ignore these stumbling blocks and with Soulmade are always trying to find new solutions. In this article we want to focus on the type of bottlenecks which can be solved by anyone willing to put some effort in it. We are aware of other and more general bottlenecks existing in our sector, but we want this longread to be as applicable as possible.
For some people Virtual Reality causes a dizzy feeling. There are various reasons why this happens. To sketch it out scientifically: Virtual Reality sickness looks like car motion sickness but is slightly different. You are moving in a VR experience: your body sits still on a chair, but your eyes send a signal to the brain while your balance organs in your ears say ‘no you’re sitting still’. The conflict of the two different impulses will cause Virtual Reality sickness.
Concretely, we can say that you will most likely be sick when there is a lot of movement in the experience. If you make a static 360 video on a tripod then the chance is much smaller that you become dizzy. While static filming is the most secure solution, we believe that this static 360 filming will create an uninteresting experience in most cases. A second reason that can cause you to get a dizzy is stereoscopy. The 3D stereo effect make your eyes working much harder than normal. Just like with a 3D movie it adds a great effect, but more people will get dizzy.
Virtual Reality sickness is a stumbling block, but this does not mean that nothing can be done about it. A solution is that you have to keep this in your head: do you want to move the 360 camera and add a dynamic aspect? Then you have to respect a number of rules. First of all you can never accelerate your movements too fast and preferably move on a constant speed. Also you must ensure that you move rectilinear and forward in your recordings. The camera must be kept upright and not turned wild and uncontrolled from left to right. Applying the right position is a must. Here again we opt for first person VR: you view the Virtual Reality experience from the standpoint that you are used to. It is at human eye level and you have arms and legs as landmarks. As a result, you do not create a vague or chaotic feeling, which you are likely to have if you use a different position. It is therefore better to have little movement in your Virtual Reality recording and if you do it, do it carefully and controlled. There are lots of other technical aspects to keep in mind to reduce Virtual Reality sickness. A lot comes down to having experience with 360 filmmaking and experience with movement and first-person Virtual Reality.
Everyone seems to be focused on storytelling. Unfortunately, storytelling is very hard in Virtual Reality. It is difficult to make the viewer fully aware of the message of a VR movie. The main reason is that the viewer does not know where to focus or what is important. This is partly because the viewer has the freedom to look around completely and you cannot create a frame like in a normal movie.
If you look at Virtual Reality, it is all about the experience. However, you do not want your production to be profiled as a fairground attraction. Virtual Reality can be a very powerful a narrative medium and it can effectively convey a message to our viewer. Sometimes even better than a movie, a photo or a radio report. It just takes some extra effort.
The first obvious solution to solve this problem is by using the spatial audio. This way we can stimulate a person to look at a certain direction. You loudly drop and object on the left side and we can guarantee the viewer will look left. It is one of the ways to make sure that important parts in the scenario are certainly viewed and focused on. Two years ago we developed our own system to easily make spatial audio and use it in our 360 productions. Nowadays it is very well known that spatial audio is important and you can find standard formats on the market like ambisonics audio, which is used by Facebook and Youtube. So never underestimate the importance of sound in your production.
A second part of the solution consists of creating a presence within Virtual Reality. If you want to tell a story it is not enough to simply place a 360 camera in the middle of the room. The best way to ensure creating a presence in Virtual Reality is filming from a first-person point of view. This way the viewer will effectively feel like he or she is present in a scene. You don’t want to be a ghost floating around observing your surroundings. Only when storytelling is unimportant it does not matter, for example in online 360 real estate. In all the other cases you want the viewer to feel like he is present within the story being told. At Soulmade we even took it one step further by creating our own first-person VR suit. Here we have a cameraman or woman inside the suit while 360 filming. This way you are a person and you move around. You are not an object floating in mid-air. We have already used the suit for a number of customers, with the positive results. An example is a producten we made for Visit Antwerp, where you, as the main character, get the feeling that you are cycling through Antwerp with a guide. Showing 360 images of people cycling around through Antwerp would not have the same effect. With or without a first-person suit, the first person position is very important because you are fully present and only then you can tell stories that are suitable for the medium Virtual Reality. If you want to show something more objective, it is better to make a 2D video.
The technical part of 360 video is something that still needs a lot of work. Luckily there has been a lot of progress over the years, for example when the first professional 360 cameras were brought onto the market. Yet, there are still a few bottlenecks in post-production process. The result of solving them will be reduced production cost and a shorter delivery period. A bottleneck here is stitching, the process used to stitch different images together to create a 360 image. This is a very important part and is not always easy to do. If there is an overlap or stitch error in a 360 movie, this will cause a breach in the immersion while people view an experience. Also here the good news is that there has been tremendous progress. Better VR stitch software and algorithms have already been developed to automate a lot of the stitching process. This way we can cut costs and be more competitive in our pricings. Also it comes down to having experience with 360 filmmaking. Many stitch errors can be avoided while recording, which saves you a lot of time and money in post-production.
Another bottleneck in this category is interactivity. The end result of a normal 2D production is a video file that almost any device can open and play. With Virtual Reality this is not the case and we have to deliver a VR application instead. Building applications can be expensive and a VR application is not a normal one. Just like in a game you are operating in a 360 environment. This is why you need gaming developers specialized in systems like Unity, Unreal Engine or OpenGL. The key here is to automate to work as much as possible. This is why we have developed a software that forms a basic framework and now we don’t have to code from zero for every VR project. Our framework also allows us to customize for every client.
Some of the virtual reality hardware fits well with certain type of VR productions or games, but more often it forms a major bottleneck in the distribution. For example, on the one hand you have cardboards. They are very cheap and easy to distribute, but you also get a very poor quality in return. Furthermore, you have the solutions that work with mobile phones. This might be nice for consumers as they can plug in their own mobile device. For companies, however, it is not so great to work with mobile phones within a price range of 600-800 euro each. Moreover, there are a lot of chips and features in a mobile phone that you don’t need for Virtual Reality. On the other hand, you have the VR hardware that is suitable for gaming and animated productions. These VR headsets are reasonably expensive and very specialized so you always have to have an expensive computer at your disposal. They always require a specialized larger installation and must be linked with movement trackers. As a result, the widespread use of this VR hardware is not easy because there is too much cost and you need specialized people to do it.
You might already know this, but the market is already coming up with a solution, namely stand-alone VR headsets. These are specially made for Virtual Reality and don’t need a computer, mobile phone or movement trackers. The quality is higher than with mobile VR, but most of them only have three degrees of freedom (3DOF). This is enough for 360 experiences, but for most gaming experiences you want to be able to walk around (6DOF). The first mainstream stand-alone VR headset is the Oculus Go. At it price range it is an amazing device, but it is designed for consumers and not for companies. To upload new content you still have to connect it to a phone and facebook does not allow much customization and keeps their system closed. Our client-base are companies and not consumers and this is why Soulmade has its own stand-alone VR headset. The main reason why: it enables us to adjust the internal software to our customers need. We can make the VR headset start your 360° video by pushing the physical start button or a personalized menu with your different VR productions. Our virtual reality headset generates a workflow that is fast and very easy to use in the distribution of your production.
Another minor hardware bottleneck is the headphones being used. We have already talked about the importance of sound in a 360 production. In the distribution there is the problem that many headphones do not work well with Virtual Reality headsets. Especially when being used in loud environments like an event or exhibition. Your VR experience will be a lot less immersive when there is background noise. Some Virtual Reality companies are aware of this problem, but try to solve it by buying very expensive headphones. Throwing money at it does not solve the problem and it comes down to buying headphones with the right specifications. We have tested lots of different type of headphones and talked to many audio specialist. It has been a whole adventure on it own, that deserves it own article. For now, we can tell you that the best solution is using a headphone which are over-ear, closed-backed, low-impedance with a TRS audio plug. Now you might be asking yourself where you can find one of this? Don’t be shy and just ask us and we will gladly help you out!
A Virtual Reality experience is sometimes seen as a anti-social experience. You have the advantage of being very focused as a viewer, but you are completely isolated. It gives a difficult distribution flow: if a company wants to give 100 people a VR demo at the same time they will need 100 virtual reality headsets. If you have one VR headset at an event and you can only show 20 people your production in one day, than the overall cost per viewer is too high. This is why you do not want virtual reality headsets that need side equipment like a phone or computer set-up which is complex to operate. It is important that the virtual reality headset is easy to use, so you do not need train people how to use it or lose to much time between viewing sessions. So everything starts with picking hardware that is in accordance to your goals.
Our first solution to make Virtual Reality more sociable and reach a larger audience is with a livestream the VR experience. This way people around the viewer are involved and this makes the virtual reality experience much more social. It may all sound easy, but you can not just put an HDMI cable into a stand alone VR headset. This solution only works with expensive headsets where you need a computer as side equipment. The solution here is livestreaming the experience over a wireless network. After searching and waiting for over a year for a solution that actually works for Virtual Reality we almost gave up. Everything we found was not compatible for 360 video or created a bad video resolution and lag. This is when we decided to take matter into our own hands and we devised this solution ourself. With our own virtual reality headset we can enable a wireless livestream that works.
To reach a broader audience making an aftermovie about the virtual reality experience is a possibility. It is an obvious solution but in many cases it has proven to work very well. Virtual Reality has the power to provoke all types of emotions that people love to watch these in an aftermovie. Also showing a making-off video is popular or other things you did around a VR experience. Another solution to reach a broader audience is WebVR. A lot of developers are working on it, because it makes watching Virtual Reality through your internet browser possible. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to get into VR experiences, no matter what device you are on. With WebVR you do not need to create an application for every different platform like Android, IoS, facebook and youtube. Using a browser to view Virtual Reality provides a wider distribution and greater reach. There is still a lot of development, but it has a lot of promise.
Congratulations if you made it this far! The bigger message we want to get a cross with this article is threefold. First of all we want to show that there are still some major obstacles and roadblocks ahead to make Virtual Reality a success story. But do not fear: many great people and companies are working to solve them. Secondly, we wanted to show you the tip of the iceberg of the complexity surrounding Virtual Reality. It takes more than pushing the record button on a 360 camera to be a Virtual Reality expert. Lastly and in all fairness and truth, we want more people to work with companies who are actively trying to solve these obstacles in VR. Companies that at least try to do something meaningful for Virtual Reality in the long-term. There are to many companies out there with a very short-term perspective that just want to make a quick buck selling Virtual Reality.