Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear a lot about augmented reality, as Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft all make big pushes. AR, they’ll be saying, is going to be huge and transformative. Yep, they’re probably right.
It’s worth noting the hype comes just a year after similar big noises were made about AR’s more immersive cousin, virtual reality. In the year since, VR’s momentum has slowed, the red-hot hype cooling to sludge. Despite that, I think it’s way too soon to write off the technology. In fact, now that the hype has eased, VR and its many creators are starting to get a lot more interesting, innovative, and substantive. With luck, they’ll also make it all pencil out financially.
This month, in cities as wildly different as Venice, Italy and Las Vegas, Nevada, some of the new frontiers shaping VR, on both the creative and business sides, will be on display.
This year’s Venice International Film Festival, which began Thursday, is holding its first VR competition, in a new 50-seat theater specially designed for VR. The VR competition features 18 pieces, part of 31 on display at the festival. That one of the world’s top film festivals is making room for VR, with a custom theater as well as the competition, is a promising signifier of the increasing artistic and creative ambitions manifesting in VR.
And no doubt, VR has needed both heartening signals and innovation in storytelling to move it forward now that the hype-driven money has evaporated.
“I feel like everybody tried to rush,” widespread adoption of VR, said Nicolas Alcala, CEO of Future Lighthouse, which has three VR pieces playing at Venice. “Even with a fast-growing technology like smart phones, it took several years for everyone to get one. I feel like we’re in Year One or Two of the iPhone.”
But, Alcala said, just as with the early days of the iPhone or, especially, of traditional cinema, now we’re starting to see more exploration of the new medium’s possibilities.
Cameras are no longer locked down for an entire scene. Cuts between scenes happen, though more sensitively than happened in early experiments. And creators are figuring out how to lead an audience through an immersive story at the audience’s preferred pace while avoiding physical side effects such as nausea.
Future Lighthouse’s Venice projects include Snatch, a “6-minute interactive heist experience” that drops fans into the episodic series from Sony and its Crackle online video network.
The 360-degree video includes notables from the series such as Rupert Grint (of the Harry Potter movies) and allows fans to try to unlock the safe in the “room.”
Other Future Lighthouse projects at Venice include Melita, a multi-part animated feature about an artificial intelligence seeking a habitable new planet for humans. The first 20-minute segment is on display at Venice, as the company seeks funding for two more sections. Future Lighthouse is also connected with The Argos File, which mixes bits from sci-fi films such as Strange Days and Minority Report into an engaging future version of a police procedural.
Director Josema Roig called the 2.5-minute piece a “proof of concept” for a much longer project for which the creators and Future Lighthouse are raising money. Despite its limited nature, Argos still grabbed a spot in the competition in Venice.
Alcala blamed the slowdown in VR’s momentum on a lack of compelling content, but said that’s improving, if more slowly than many would prefer.
“I think we’re three or four years away for feature films to be solid enough to get their money back and (have) millions of consumers consuming content,” Alcala said.
In the meantime, Alcala and his team are pushing a series of projects, while experimenting with a variety of stylistic and creative techniques, such as providing both a “director’s view” that tells the Melita story in a more guided way, and a “doll’s house view” for audiences who want to control their own experiences.
Elsewhere, VR is spreading into new areas, finding other ways to make money that don’t depend on consumers laying out hundreds or thousands of dollars for an in-home setup.
It was that formidable cost, rather than content challenges, that has slowed VR’s momentum, said Jim Stewartson, a veteran of early-days VR who has returned to the industry as CEO of Awesome Rocketship.
“The commitment required and logistics of installing in-home VR are simply non-starters for normal people,” Stewartson said.
Stewartson will be on a panel I’m moderating later this month at a Las Vegas conference on “The Future of Immersive Leisure.” In layman’s terms, the conference will focus on “out-of-home,” the kind of VR-based experiences you’re going to start finding in the lobbies of theaters and malls, at restaurants such as Dave & Buster’s and in dedicated VR spaces such as those IMAX is rolling out.
“As the consumer market for VR continues to lag, video game developers, film producers, video game operators, amusement park operators, and other players are increasing efforts to introduce VR in the out-of-home entertainment market,” said conference co-chairman Michael Mascioni, co-author of “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier.”
At this point, out of home is the natural next step, for a lot of reasons, said Dan Jamele, CEO of MediaMation, who also will be on my panel.
“We feel that completely engaging the audience is the difference between in and out of home,” said Jamele. ”Offering something that is not available as well as the social and interactive experience is something Millennials are looking for and (are) willing to pay for.”
Out of home will thrive because it’s much more cost-effective to create and deliver “large-scale VR experiences that would be too difficult and costly to introduce in the home,” Mascioni said.
Expect to see these more immersive experiences, replete with physical feedback such as vibrating seats and wind, in arena-sized spaces, casinos, cruise ships, hotels and many other spaces, Mascioni said.
While IMAX and others bet on the equivalent of stand-alone video arcades for out of home, the emergent trend is to integrate VR experiences into bigger entertainment and hospitality facilities.
“The potential market is immense,” Stewartson said. “In just the consumer entertainment sector, where the prerequisite to selling VR is mainly ‘a meaningful number of humans with ten bucks and ten minutes,’ suitable venues include malls, movie theaters, airports, theme parks, arcades, museums, etc. Beyond entertainment, there are (huge) business-use cases.”
So now it gets interesting.
“We see VR tracking the movie industry a century ago,” Stewartson said. The film industry’s first couple of decades saw a profusion of tech and creative experimentation. By 1915 or so, however, the industry settled down, and took off.
“Most of the major studios still operating today were born in the five years after that,” Stewartson said. “VR has had a parallel track. If, as the saying goes, history ‘rhymes,’ there will be some very successful companies born from the current circumstances.”