UK HPA Tech Retreat Report - Day 1

Set in the idyllic surroundings of Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire - UK, this year’s Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat was brimming with innovation, demonstrations and expert industry speakers. VR and 360 dominated day one with production and technical speakers battling out the pros and cons of this controversial addition to the viewer experience.

Immersion was the buzz word of the day with speakers talking about the story telling effect of VR and the need to interact with viewers so they can lose themselves in the entertainment. Although it was widely accepted that nobody has yet nailed the narrative of VR, and we’re still learning the production rules for sound, vision and storytelling, some current offerings sometimes result in a less than impressive production.

Not Production Ready

Zillah Watson, editorial development of VR experimentation at the BBC, focused on the business and production side of VR, claiming it is not yet production ready. Watson brought together other users of VR/360 especially from newspaper organisations including the Guardian and New York Times. The fundamental win for these publications is that they put the viewer at the centre of the event, but Watson suggested they are struggling to find ‘good enough’ content to drive an audience.

To push the technology, some hardware manufacturers are sponsoring news agencies to provide VR/360, although Watson went on to assure delegates that there are hard editorial lines that would not be crossed, some delegates were more cynical.

OZO Coachella Live

Tarif Sayed, Head of VR Technologies at Nokia, gave a jaw dropping presentation of a real-life production at the OZO Coachella Live concert. Unobtrusive cameras, not much bigger than a soccer ball covered the concert with just four 360 units mounted on small tripods, and only one extra OZO live operator was required in the OB truck.

Producing a 360-experience concert is completely different from a normal television production, claimed Sayed. Production staff must think differently as the whole stage is now being recorded and directors must think outside of the traditional 16:9 box, or in Sayed’s words “a cage”. Theatre directors are better experienced than traditional broadcast directors as they tell their story in a scene, not in a frame.

One 360 unit was placed directly on the stage between the drummer and guitarists, and Sayed advised this was a perfect example of focusing on the sound, as the combination between the camera position and sound field gave the viewer the ultimate immersive experience.

Key Advice

Sayed shared his experiences to give four key pieces of advice; place the cameras as close as possible to the action, make the viewer feel as if they are there, the camera becomes one of the crowd, and place a camera on stage close to the talent.

The real heart dropping moment came when speakers alluded to the issue of motion sickness, with one speaker claiming up to 50% of people can feel sick if certain senses within the human sensory system are not properly stimulated and respected. For example, rapidly moving the head can result in visual lag in the VR headset if the system has not been correctly designed, or is suffering from network delay.

Even moving the head back and forward causes sickness through the phenomenon of motion parallax. When we move our heads, the objects behind and in front of our principle focus move and change size ever so slightly relative to each other, our brains expect this and correct for it, if producers and engineers have not taken this into consideration, viewers may feel disorientated or sick.

New Research

A whole new field of psycho-acoustic and psycho-visual research is being conducted by the champions of VR. Rules are being written so the viewer experience becomes truly immersive, interactive, and brings awe and wonder.

Mary-Luc Champel from Technicolor, gave an excellent presentation on the study’s currently being carried out to make VR work in real life environments. He showed the VR industry is fragmented in terms of standardization, but a lot of work was being conducted by MPEG and the VR Industry Forum to resolve this, and formalised standards are due to be released by MPEG-I (“I” for immersive) through IEC/ISO soon.

Another area of interest is colour representation and maintaining creative intent as many headsets are not calibrated, use differing colour spaces and gamma’s. Tania Pouli from Technicolor demonstrated the work her team was doing in measuring and calibrating headsets, and could show that many devices varied widely even from BT709.

Emotion and Empathy

Brynley Gibson, head of studios for Curve Digital Entertainment, represented the gaming industry with some impressive demonstrations of PlayStation experiences. Brynley quoted Dr Brian Jackson to give the only concrete definition of VR offered in the day “Virtual reality is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds”.

Astounding users and transporting them to another world were the key objectives of Brynley and his VR team. He also went on to talk about making the experience feel believable and evoking emotion and empathy. The need to map out emotions in the pre-design storyboard featured heavily in the presentation, again supporting the idea of immersion.

Will VR/360 Survive?

HPA’s Tech Retreat 360 and VR day was a memorable experience, but would have benefited more from some technology demos for the delegates. However, the speakers were candid with their observations and comments, honestly sharing their experiences, both good and bad, and this was to the benefit of all who attended.

Whether 360 and VR will exist this time next year is another question. Although the HPA organizers did a fantastic job of bringing together very experienced and influential speakers, and nobody wanted to put the words “3D” in the same sentence as “360/VR”, only the viewers will decide if they want to be truly immersed in the whole VR/360 experience.

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