Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Guest blog: Is Microsoft Hololens really a ‘Mixed Reality’ Device?

Over the past 5 years, consumers have had a lot of new terms to grapple with. ‘virtual reality’, ‘spherical video’, ‘cinematic VR’, ‘volumetric video’, ‘augmented reality’, ‘mixed reality’, ‘blended reality’ and I’ve even heard the name ‘transmogrified reality’ floating around. With so much debate among industry professionals over the true meaning of these terms, how on earth can we expect the general public to understand the differences?

Whilst these terms are typically coined in academic papers, technical terms are often bastardised by companies in an effort to carve out their own identity and differentiate themselves from competition. And this is understandable.

Most of us can recall the less-than-complimentary term for people wearing Google Glass. In the adverts for Glass, Google introduced consumers to ‘augmented reality’, a technology which would revolutionise every aspect of our experience. However in reality, Google Glass never lived up to expectations and the term ‘augmented reality’ suffered from stigma as a result.

Two years later, when the Microsoft Hololens announced their head mounted display, they needed a new term to differentiate their new product from Google Glass. They did this in two ways. Firstly, Microsoft revived the popular concept of ‘holograms’ for the type of content it displays.

Note that this bears little relation to the technical definition of holograms, where a three-dimensional image formed by the interference of light beams from a laser. For anybody interested in a deeper dive, VR developer & academic Oliver Kreylos has a great post on his blog about the differences between holograms & what the Hololens creates.

The second way Microsoft distanced themselves from Google Glass was by bringing another term into the public lexicon - ‘mixed reality’. Microsoft use this term to describe an overlay of synthetic content on the real world that is anchored to and interacts with the real world. However, the term ‘Mixed Reality’ was actually coined in 1994 by researcher Paul Milgram in an academic paper, which described MR as part of the ‘virtuality continuum’.

Whilst the concept of the ‘virtuality continuum’ can be hard to grapple with, broadly speaking, the ‘virtuality continuum’ describes AR & VR as being on a sliding scale, rather than as discrete, binary terms. On one side of the continuum, you have good old-fashioned reality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have full, immersive virtual reality. Along the continuum from reality to VR, there is also ‘augmented reality’ and ‘augmented virtuality’. For a better idea of the differences between the components in the ‘virtuality continuum’, creative technologist Vincent McCurley created this wonderful gif that illustrates the virtuality continuum perfectly:

From looking at Vincent’s gif, anybody who has tried the Hololens would say that actually, Hololens content most closely resembles ‘augmented reality’. However, by describing the Hololens as a mixed reality device, Microsoft seeds the idea that their device is capable of displaying any content along the virtuality continuum.

Dispute only arises when people treat terms like AR, VR or MR as absolute terms. By nature of being a ‘mixed reality’ headset, the Hololens is both an ‘augmented reality’ headset as well an ‘augmented virtuality’ headset. Anybody trying to assert that the Hololens is one or the other, hasn’t understood the definition of what a mixed reality headset is.

Thankfully, whichever term the public adopt will ultimately be driven by the product which most resonates with consumers. Industry ‘gurus’ will argue ad nauseum whether the widely popular ‘Pokemon Go’ is or is not ‘true’ augmented reality. However as far as consumers are concerned, if you can see a Pikachu on your camera feed, it’s AR. This is in stark contrast to Snapchat, one of the most popular mobile augmented reality apps, which doesn’t mention the terms AR or MR anywhere.

It’s clear that over the next decade, we are going to see a dramatic increase in augmented and virtual reality innovations, in both hardware and software. At Scape, we’re working on localisation technology that allows regular mobile devices to recognise exactly where they are for city-scale augmented reality. My hope is that as the AR market matures, innovations will be judged by their merits and not obfuscated by buzz-words and hyperbole.

Edward Miller

Edward will be speaking at Develop VR on Thursday 1st December, 2016.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Guest Blog: Immersion Doesn’t Have to Mean Isolation

At seeper we use creative technology for live events and installations and VR is an odd one for us. On the one hand clients are interested in the novelty and immersive experiences we can create with VR. On the other hand, once wearing a VR device the physical venue matters less if at all - and arguably undermines our client's business, which is to offer destinations that are worth travelling to - whether that be a visitor attraction like a theme park or museum, or an experiential event for a brand. At my Develop:VR talk I'll explore this in detail, and look at technical and creative solutions. For this post I wanted to flag up five of the challenges we face:

1.         Disconnecting your senses from the real world.. in public.

We’ve evolved to use our senses for matters of life and death. We may not be in danger of being mauled by a sabre tooth tiger while enjoying a VR experience in a natural history museum but we might just be in danger of having our handbag swiped! There is something disconcerting about surrendering our awareness of what is happening around us in a public space. We need to mitigate this…

2.         Bumping into things!

VR systems that allow you to move around present problems at home too, but in public spaces the additional fear of walking into walls or into total strangers is heightened. I recently had this experience at Bjork Digital, when pairs of guests wandered around in an enclosed space and we were all distracted wondering whether we were about to clatter into one another.

3.         Interacting with hosts

Pretty much any live VR experience requires some guidance from support staff, whether that be practical advice on adjusting focus or helping users navigate an interactive experience. This presents problems for both the user and the host in communicating and for the host in understanding what is going on.

4.         Interacting with products

We’ve looked a number of times at how a brand’s product, typically drink brands it seems, can be incorporated into a VR experience. The challenge is how to enable a VR user to pick something up, or even to place something in the hand without mishap.

5.         Interacting with other visitors

The destination experiences we create are for groups, and often families. Immersion in the virtual can mean disconnection from the shared experience. On a thrill ride, part of the fun is exchanging excited thoughts as the ride starts to move, or watching the reaction on a friend’s face.

Come by the talk at Develop VR where I’ll be sharing the solutions we’re developing at seeper.

Ed Daly is managing director seeper and is a speaker at Develop:VR. His session 'Immersion doesn't have to mean isolation' will take place at 16.45 in room 2.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Guest Blog: VR production and the evolution from storytelling to story-living

VR is a new medium with many emerging genres and complex production methods, so when briefs come into REWIND, the first thing we do is get clarity on what exactly is required. Is it as simple as linear 360 degree video or as complex as a VR Experience (VRE)?  Both are fantastic in their own way, but could not be further from each other in their creation.

Storytelling to story-living
The difference in user experience between these two bookends of content production can be described as ‘story-telling’ to ‘story-living'.  Storytelling applies to current film and also to 360 degree video, it’s a linear experience, the user is a passive observer. But with 360 video you get some level of immersion although it’s limited as you cannot fully interact with your environment. Story-living on the other hand applies to VRE where ‘presence’ - the real magic of VR -  is at it’s most powerful. The perception of being physically present in a non physical world is an incredibly powerful sensation. Within VRE you can fully interact with the environment you find yourself in, you can even walk around, you are fully immersed, you truly ‘live’ the story you find yourself in. Traditional film is a window into a story. In VR, you are the story.

VR requires an entirely new type of storytelling
VR requires new storytelling rules and everyone is still trying to figure them out! Unlike traditional film-making where the director has complete control over what the audience gets to see, VR allows viewers to make their own decisions about what they focus on in the scene. This is a potential problem that no one quite has the answer to yet: how do you keep the level of freedom and interaction that VR allows the viewer, while making sure they don’t miss any of the key elements of your piece? There are several options open to the director to ensure the audience’s attention can be focused when necessary; lighting and sound cues, changing the focal point of an object or character on-screen, or even verbal/action cues can be a powerful tool. In ‘Back To Dinosaur Island’ Crytek used a dragonfly moving around the player’s “head” to direct their attention and ensure that they get a good look at every part of the environment.

Creating ‘presence’ and considering the user
‘Presence’ refers to audience participation within VR, something which can be greater or smaller depending on the type of experience they’re viewing. Directors will need to decide what level of engagement they want, and ensure that the right balance is struck; if a scene is too intimate without acknowledging the viewer, it's likely users will feel uncomfortable and intrusive. Conversely, if your viewer feels like an outsider they can quickly become disengaged and disinterested.

Pushing the level of immersion

‘Home’, the epic spacewalk experience REWIND created with the BBC is a prime example of story-living. The 15 minute VRX was created in Unreal 4 for HTC’s Vive, and the content was in part inspired by NASA's training programme and the astonishing experiences of its astronauts. ‘Home’s ambition as a piece of VR is to combine a strong narrative and sense of drama with the incredible impact possible in an immersive experience to encourage and enhance the public’s interest in space. The level of immersion is heightened at live events by the integration of heart rate monitors that feed back into the experience, recreating the sound of the user’s own heartbeat in their headset. This is combined with an integrated live mic that is acoustically treated and delivered back into the experience, relaying the sound of their own breathing. The ambient sound is spatial and creates the claustrophobia of the astronaut’s helmet and the unnerving sounds of your own body and your space suit's life support system. A gaming chair is also used to provide haptic feedback to make the experience as real as possible. 

Solomon Rogers is founder of VR and creative digital agency, REWIND. His talk 'VR Production: From Story-telling to Story-living" will take place at 3.30pm, room two.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Guest Blog: The Future of Stories in Virtual Reality

At Develop:VR this year, Pete Short from Breaking Fourth is going to be speaking about The Future of Stories in Virtual Reality. This topic is something which the London based VR studio is incredibly passionate about, particularly while there are still no hard and fast rules for VR storytelling.

Breaking Fourth released Ctrl this year, the world’s first scripted long-form VR drama designed specifically for mobile VR. This production has seen great success, being showcased around the world at events like Oculus Connect 3 and Toronto International Film Festival and being nominated for multiple innovation and VR awards. Ctrl is currently the only piece of it’s kind available in virtual reality, using a combination of CGI and live action footage to tell a dark, challenging story about the life of a teenage boy. The audience is dropped directly inside a video game (an impossible challenge for any other medium) and the drama in his outside world is shown via the clever use of webcam screens into his home. Full review available here.

So what should you expect to find out in this talk? Well, the future of stories in virtual reality is a vast topic which could touch on many different areas. During the production of Ctrl, we learned through trial and error what does and doesn’t work in this new medium. Taking techniques from the theatre and combining them with influences from games + cinema, we explored a multitude of different narrative techniques, culminating in a dark, emotional piece which splits audiences. Virtual Reality, by it’s nature, confronts the viewer with the content - forces you to watch and listen, and often results in increased emotional connection with the story and self-reflection on the situation. We sum up our thoughts on what was successful from our research and what are our new VR storytelling techniques that we now can’t live without.

Aside from narrative + storytelling techniques, in this talk Pete will explore whether this kind of content is what audiences want. Who are the current VR audiences and how do we cater to their needs while pushing boundaries with content that is available? Do VR audiences even know what it is that they are hungry for? What will audiences want in the future?

What does this all mean for the future of stories in virtual reality according to Breaking Fourth? Content is always quoted as the driving factor for VR.  This is and isn’t the case - High-quality, transformational, challenging and interesting content is the driving factor for VR. As John Carmack mentioned in his keynote speech at OC3 this year, it’s time for VR to stop being a gimmick and to start pushing boundaries. Pete hopes to share some insight on how content creators can enter this space and be creating content that will rival stories told through TV and film.

A short demo of Ctrl will also be available in the IndieZone at DevelopVR.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Guest Blog: Demoing VR is still key to audience engagement

When it comes to marketing a product, in regards to any product not just virtual reality content,  showcasing the product to your audience is important. With VR, it allows us to help work towards building the future audiences. You’ll hear influencers and speakers talk about “when VR headsets are adopted by the mainstream audience or general public” – there are necessary hoops we must go through until this becomes true for all major headsets that are now available to purchase. 

VR is no longer the rare product that appears in the corners of major game or tech events. It is now a key attraction, gathering extensive crowds and queues. In fact, event organisers and floor planners are working it into their strategy, having to take special measures for VR kit such as; dividers to ensure VR setups don’t interfere with each other, additional space for safety and ensuring room for larger than average queues.

Conference organisers have begun creating VR tracks, panels and talking with the major headset providers such as HTC, Sony & Oculus, pitching for them to take demo space on the main floors to try and satisfy demand.

Encouraging consumer adoption is important for developers and content creators as they don’t want the games and experiences they have spent months (even years) creating to flop, after all studios and publishers need to make enough money to ensure they afford their next production. Demoing headsets and content is an important part of this process, not only to promote their game but the whole medium of virtual reality.

Breaking Fourth's David Kaskel about to demo virtual reality to a customer at VRUK (Feb, 2016)
VR production studio Breaking Fourth, took the demo concept one step further. In July 2016, they held a theatre run for their debut production ‘Ctrl’. This involved placing 20 people at a time in their VR creation, providing viewers with a first-hand look at both the technology and the storytelling skills of the studio. Being held in a theatre, this approach also took the VR demo concept and transformed it into the premise for an exciting night out. It was met with rave reviews from CityAm, Wired and VRFocus.

Seeing is believing is crucial for this industry. A lot people need to try out technology before they want to use it. You go to the apple store to try out the newest apple watch before you buy it. The same applies to VR, it is an investment for the future. VR will be a big part of our home life in years to come. But like every larger purchase, you must give it a go before you make that investment.

By Bertie Mills, co-founder and MD of Virtual Umbrella