Im­mer­sion on

It’s been the Next Big Thing for a quar­ter of a cen­tury, but is Vir­tual Re­al­ity fi­nally about to change the way we ex­pe­ri­ence sto­ry­telling?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - ■ Im­mer­sive Sto­ries takes place on Fe­bru­ary 24th and 25th in the Round Room at the Man­sion House,Dublin.Seed­iff.ie

The next stage in vir­tual re­al­ity en­ter­tain­ment

Vir­tual re­al­ity is com­ing to the Audi Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, which will host a two-day con­fer­ence on the fu­ture of en­ter­tain­ment built within ar­ti­fi­cial uni­verses. Ti­tled Im­mer­sive Sto­ries, the bash wel­comes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from such play­ers as Lu­cas­film, Ocu­lus VR the VOID and In­dus­trial Light and Magic. Aoife Doyle and Ni­amh Her­rity, founders of the Ir­ish stu­dio Pink Kong, who were re­cently awarded a bur­sary of 30,000 by Audi Ire­land, ADIFF and Screen Train­ing Ire­land, will present their VR short Au­rora.

Eoghan Cun­neen, a se­nior software en­gi­neer at Lu­cas­film, cu­rates the event for ADIFF. Speak­ing to me from his of­fice over­look­ing the Golden Gate bridge, he en­thuses about the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“This is the first time that the fes­ti­val has done a vir­tual re­al­ity or aug­mented en­ter­tain­ment event,” he says. “There’s an ex­hi­bi­tion with vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity ap­pli­ca­tions for peo­ple to try. Then we have the con­fer­ence: ‘How are sto­ry­tellers us­ing th­ese new plat­forms? How are we giv­ing peo­ple dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives?’ ”

The dig­i­tal buzz tells us that vir­tual re­al­ity is about to mat­ter very much. Tech­nol­ogy is get­ting quicker and cheaper. Google, Sony, Ama­zon, Mi­crosoft, Sam­sung and Ap­ple have all in­vested eye-wa­ter­ing sums in their aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity di­vi­sions. It’s the Next Big Thing. Right?

We have been here be­fore. More than once. Those in the busi­ness will, I imag­ine, be sick to death of cyn­ics point­ing to a no­to­ri­ous 1993 episode of Mur­der, She Wrote in which Jes­sica Fletcher was asked to help de­sign a vir­tual re­al­ity game. Wear­ing a head­set eerily sim­i­lar to the ones now sold by Sam­sung or Stealth VR, An­gela Lans­bury gamely got aboard the Zeit­geist Ex­press. “It’s partly a game, partly an en­vi­ron­ment,” Jes­sica ex­plained. “Sud­denly you’re in this world that ex­ists only in a com­puter, ex­cept it feels quite real. It’s a bit dis­ori­ent­ing, as if you’re vis­it­ing this strange, al­most alien space.” Ev­ery word could ap­pear in a blurb ex­plain­ing the cur­rent in­car­na­tion.

Around the same time as that episode was broad­cast, I vis­ited an ar­cade called Vir­tual World in Pasadena to play a “vir­tual-re­al­ity” ver­sion of the com­bat game BattleTech. The in­verted com­mas in the pre­vi­ous sen­tence are worth heed­ing. Not vir­tu­ally real in any con­tem­po­rary sense, the BattleTech pods al­lowed you to fight with friends while sit­ting in some­thing a lit­tle like a cock­pit. Atari’s Bat­tle­zone from over a decade ear­lier was only marginally less real. Nonethe­less, the buzz­words were in place. Vir­tual Re­al­ity was about to hap­pen.

It didn’t quite work out. Those words never went away. Var­i­ous ver­sions of the head­sets were em­ployed in oc­ca­sional ef­forts to reignite the non-craze. The tech­nol­ogy was used to train pi­lots and as­tro­nauts. But it wasn’t un­til the mid­dle of the cur­rent decade that we were again in­formed that VR had achieved Next Big Thing sta­tus. You all saw that nau­se­at­ing “vir­tual re­al­ity night with mam” Voda­fone com­mer­cial. Yes?

Last May, when vis­it­ing the Cannes Film

Fes­ti­val, I was driven to a hangar be­side the town’s small air­port, stripped of my shoes, equipped with a head­set-back­pack combo and pro­pelled into a space lined with rough sand. Ale­jan­dro G Iñár­ritu’s Carne y Arena places you near the border be­tween the US and Mex­ico as the Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties ap­pre­hend a group of im­mi­grants. The ex­pe­ri­ence is un­canny. Vis­i­tors find them­selves duck­ing as he­li­copters sweep over­head. It feels in­tru­sive, awk­ward and un­set­tling. In Oc­to­ber, it was con­firmed that Iñár­ritu (who was there to greet us in the hangar) would be awarded a spe­cial Academy Award “in recog­ni­tion of a vi­sion­ary and pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence in sto­ry­telling”. Some­thing is def­i­nitely hap­pen­ing.

Pow­erinthe­p­ocket

Eoghan Cun­neen, one of our na­tion’s un­der-cel­e­brated stars, has worked on vis­ual ef­fects for such pic­tures as Paddington, Edge of

To­mor­row and Grav­ity. He was also a se­nior software en­gi­neer on Carne y Arena. So why should we take no­tice this time? What do we know now that Jes­sica Fletcher didn’t know 25 years ago?

“The main con­trib­u­tor to this is mo­bile de­vices,” Cun­neen says. “We have high-pow­ered com­put­ing prod­ucts that fit in your pocket. More im­por­tantly, re­search and de­vel­op­ment has gone into the dis­play it­self. We can pack so many more pix­els into the core de­vice. The level of fi­delity of the screen is such that we are able to of­fer very com­pelling images.”

And yet. En­gi­neers like Eoghan have so spoilt us that the images pro­vided by high-high end VR such as Carne y Arena seem a tiny bit less vi­tal than those in, say, The Last Jedi or War for The Planet of the Apes.

“The dif­fi­culty is we are see­ing this side by side with the pro­gres­sion of com­puter graph­ics in fea­ture films,” Cuneen says pa­tiently. “Fea­ture film has the lux­ury that when we are cre­at­ing images we don’t need a re­fresh rate of 90 frames a sec­ond. Of­ten it takes hours to ren­der a frame of a fea­ture film.”

That will change. As Eoghan notes, the com­puter graph­ics on films from just five years ago can al­ready seem dated. The images used for vir­tual re­al­ity will be­come sharper and brighter. That fast frame rate should en­sure that the nau­sea oc­ca­sion­ally in­duced by the old head­sets will no longer be a prob­lem.

By ti­tling their event “Im­mer­sive Sto­ries”, ADIFF is in­di­cat­ing that there is more to the cur­rent move­ment than what we used to un­der­stand by vir­tual re­al­ity. Definitions are slip­pery.

Cuneen speaks of three “tiers of im­mer­sion”. In vir­tual re­al­ity, you are wear­ing a head­set that cov­ers each eye sep­a­rately. There is no chance of the ex­ter­nal world en­croach­ing. One tier down we have the “mixed re­al­ity” that the forth­com­ing Magic Leap head­set hopes to ex­ploit. Com­puter graph­ics are im­posed onto the world in front of you; those graph­ics con­vey a sense of depth that will al­ter as the user moves around the ren­dered ob­ject. We have al­ready had a me­dia furore around the low­est tier of im­mer­sion. A year and a half ago, the world was en­gulfed with panic when

Poké­mon Go – which em­ploys so-called “aug­mented re­al­ity” – threat­ened to bring west­ern civil­i­sa­tions to its knees. (Sur­geons were al­legedly aban­don­ing heart trans­plants to chase rare Poké­mon about the cor­ri­dors.) In this case a less flex­i­ble im­age is locked onto the screen.

It is be­com­ing clear that, as well as sup­ple­ment­ing fa­mil­iar en­ter­tain­ments such as cin­ema and videogames, th­ese tiers of im­mer­sion are in­spir­ing whole new me­dia. One could rea­son­ably ask if Carne y Arena is within the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ence’s re­mit. After all, they don’t give awards for telly or videogames. The tech­nol­ogy is go­ing off at oblique an­gles.

“Yes. You can maybe go to Dis­ney World,” Cuneen says. “There will be a Star Wars land there in 2019 or 2020. I can maybe go and en­gage with char­ac­ters there. I can be phys­i­cally there in that world.”

Fes­ti­val­on­the­couch

VR now al­lows pun­ters to ex­pe­ri­ence Glas­ton­bury from less-muddy cor­ners of the world. The Coachella mu­sic fes­ti­val out­side LA has in­spired a vir­tual ver­sion wit­tily (and in­evitably) dubbed “Couchella”. You can do any­thing with the medium. Maybe it is the next VHS. Maybe it is the next in­ter­net. Such mus­ings do, how­ever, push us in an un­com­fort­able di­rec­tion. We knew the web and video had re­ally ar­rived when they be­came fun­nels for pornog­ra­phy. The sex in­dus­try is un­sen­ti­men­tal and un­moved by hype. Does Cuneen think that VR porn is on the way?

“Yes,” he says with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “I worked in Soho in Lon­don for a long time. That area was built on that. It is what it is. That is go­ing to be a huge com­po­nent and it’s go­ing to be a huge money-spin­ner.” Is it al­ready here? “Al­most cer­tainly.” There will be none of that sort of thing at Im­mer­sive Sto­ries. Aoife Doyle and Ni­amh Her­rity, founders of Dublin’s in­no­va­tive Pink Kong stu­dio, are here to demon­strate that the new im­mer­sive me­dia are not just there for mas­sive play­ers like Lu­cas­film. The bur­sary from Audi of­fered them an op­por­tu­nity to ac­cel­er­ate their work on a short film (is that still the word?) called Au­rora.

“It’s a story about a young fam­ily based in a for­est clear­ing,” Aoife says. “It fol­lows them through day to night, spring to win­ter, life to death. We want the au­di­ence to re­flect on the no­tion that time can be fleet­ing and fickle.”

They go on to ex­plain how the user can in­ter­act with the wildlife. If you dis­turb a deer, it will leave sooner than if you leave it alone. The viewer is be­com­ing a player in the story.

“As the tech­nol­ogy ad­vances, that means the price within the mar­ket comes down,” Ni­amh con­tin­ues. “We are also see­ing that Ocu­lus and Vibe are bring­ing out tech­nol­ogy that is teth­er­less. You no longer have wires.”

All of which sounds con­vinc­ing. But there must still be some pos­si­bil­ity that the cur­rent VR craze will go the way of the first mini-boom in the early 1990s. Re­mem­ber when the in­ter­ac­tive CR-Rom was set to boss pop­u­lar cul­ture. Might VR fail to hap­pen (again)?

“Yeah. I think so,” Eoghan says bravely. “It may be case of: do I buy this head­set or that head­set? There may be more im­me­di­ate ap­pli­ca­tions of us­ing mixed re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences than vir­tual re­al­ity. There’s al­ways go­ing to be that fear.”

At the close of A Vir­tual Mur­der, Jes­sica Fletcher con­tem­plates a flower and won­ders whether “a com­puter can ever be pro­grammed to en­joy some­thing as sim­ple and beau­ti­ful as this”.

Put a sock in it, Fletch. If ear­lier in­no­va­tors had en­ter­tained that at­ti­tude we’d never have got Grand Theft Auto.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ISTOCK/LEG­ENDARY PIC­TURES/BRIAN MCEVOY

Above: a still from di­rec­tor Ale­jan­dro González Iñár­ritu’s vir­tual re­al­ity project Carne y Arena. Be­low: a still from VR an­i­ma­tion Au­rora, by di­rec­tor Aoife Doyle & pro­ducer Ni­amh Her­rity of Pink Kong Stu­dios in Dublin.

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