Can virtual reality (VR) that incorporates live action be qualified as cinema? That is the question that was at the heart of discussions during the extensive program at the NEXT Pavilion, devoted entirely to the host of challenges as well as creative, financial and technological possibilities arising from VR only a few months after the first headsets hit consumer markets.
The happening was announced with great fanfare at the Cannes Film Market and began a few days only after controversial declarations made by Steven Spielberg, who stated that giving latitude to viewers to make their own choices of where to look was “dangerous.” His declaration was criticized by Forbes and the UploadVR.com blog as well as Motherboard Vice’s Meghan Neal, who in turn declared that traditional storytelling is ruining VR. Could the marriage of traditional cinema and virtual reality be first and foremost a generational cleavage issue?
The first edition of VR Days showcased a bouquet of simultaneous group projections (30 places) followed by demonstrations, panels and immersive facilities such as the Artanim Foundation’s multi-user 3D Real Virtuality environment and the Birdly full-body flying simulator which combines VR and a robotic motion station.
A series of national presentations allowed participants to experiment with the most recent VR advancements from Europe, Asia and North America. For example, at the Israeli pavilion, the Steamer festival and technology incubator promoted ten immersive experiences. Other highlights included breakthrough technologies such as the Vuze live virtual reality camera, a large Canadian delegation presenting genre-based VR as well as Felix & Paul Studios’ latest documentary experiences.
Deloitte facilitated the week’s most popular panel discussion on the monetization of virtual reality content of all genres. According to the most conservative prognostics, the current market is evaluated at US$1 billion and equipment sales (VR headsets and headphones, software, etc.) account for 70% of this market. Thus, 2.5 million headsets in total are expected to have been sold by the end of the year. The launch of the PlayStation VR headset is not scheduled before October, and no one will be surprised to learn that video games make up the bulk of the current offering.
Goldman Sachs’ prediction that the VR market will grow to attain $80 billion by 2020 had more than one NEXT participant raise an eyebrow. Meanwhile, Paul Lee, Deloitte’s director of technology and media research in the U.K., sought to put VR’s public penetration rate in perspective seeing as there are as many smartphones sold every twelve hours as there are virtual reality headsets in an entire year.
Among the reasons provided to explain this: the price and weight of the first headsets launched on the market as well as the limited duration of experiences and the need to promote specific contexts of use for each type of content.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a VR experience must be worth a million words,” claims Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Through its new Fox Innovation Lab subsidiary, the company was among the first Hollywood studios to invest in immersiveness, namely with The Martian VR Experience (2015), a 30-minute adventure that spurred waiting lines more than five hours long during the most recent Sundance Festival.
For Alex Barder, the founder of VRwerks and producer of Paranormal Activity VR, developing actual creative immersiveness services within the film industry is a real challenge, seeing as today’s major initiatives stem mostly from marketing subsidiaries and Hollywood’s visual effects studios or result from the work of engineers and entrepreneurs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
For his part, Furious M studio’s Mario Kenyon estimates that the first “virtual reality Spielberg” will most likely be a Millennial who successfully incorporated during his youth the concepts of immersion and augmented reality using first-generation mobile applications.
Eugene Chung, co-creator of the Oculus Story Studio and one of the rare ‘veterans’ in the virtual reality industry, arrived at NEXT after having conquered Sundance and Tribeca with his VR animated features The Rose and I and especially Allumette, that Wired considers as the very first virtual reality masterpiece.
Penrose Studios, company he founded less than a year ago, a.k.a. “The Pixar Of VR” uses a business model specific to Silicon Valley start-ups: a first funding round that raised US$8.5 million, intellectual property rights on the content and technology, a leading-edge team bringing together the best design, animation and business minds.
He contends that VR must be based on a business model that is different from those used to market traditional media content and video games. He gave free access to his initial works for a limited time. Rates will probably vary according to the duration of individual works. Several studios like his would like to set up their own transactional platform. However, players such as Hulu are already just as busy acquiring licenses and implementing immersive interfaces for linear content.
This year, over a hundred participants attended the presentation at Cannes of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), which dealt with virtual reality. That’s ten times more than in 2015 according to organizers and testifies to the increasing buzz generated by immersive storytelling. In 2015, the CNC invested one million Euros in twenty or so virtual reality projects. The funds came from a combination of financial aid awarded for content and technology development as well as the international tax credit.
On the international stage, two French experiences commanded attention in the past month. ARTE, which took advantage of the Cannes Festival to launch Jours de tournage – une expérience à 360° (a new virtual reality documentary collection), financed I, Philip, a predictive experience on the life and work of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, produced by Okio-Studio in collaboration with Montréal-based immersive sound studio Headspace.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, the VR complement of the documentary on the experience of blindness bearing the same title, also garnered praise at the Sundance and Tribeca festivals. It results from a collaborative effort between the AGAT Films/Ex-Nihilo film production company and the AudioGaming digital start-up.
As part of its participation in the first edition of the Paris Virtual Film Festival (June 7–18), where some 15 or so French and international immersive fictional experiences will be presented, the CNC announced that it will be holding a panel on the cognitive implications of user experiences as well as a VR Lab where ten producers and three authors will be invited to discover the challenges of creating virtual reality. The goal is to ensure that France maintains its status as a global immersiveness pioneer.
In light of these first highly instructive VR Days, it will be interesting to validate at next year’s Cannes festival if the wave of disillusionment that is anticipated over the next five years will become virtual or actual reality.
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