Special report: The big picture for virtual reality

Executives from Discovery, Beyond Productions, Ovrture and Secret Location sit down with realscreen to discuss the burgeoning field of virtual reality, forthcoming projects and the future of television. (Pictured: Beyond Productions' MythBusters for Discovery Channel)
December 7, 2015

With more producers and broadcasters investing in the burgeoning technology, plans for more virtual reality content are accelerating. But will it be a platform that’s built to last, or will it run out of gas?

The promise of virtual reality has been just over the horizon for the last 20 years, with players such as Virtuality Group and Sega VR jumping headfirst into the VR space in the early 1990s, developing stereoscopic visors and joysticks for arcade gaming. It wasn’t until Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR – the Menlo Park, California-based immersive VR tech company – last year in a deal worth US$2 billion that the futuristic technology became a huge talking point in the content industry.

Though Oculus VR and its Rift – the company’s ground- breaking head-mounted display – are primarily focused on bringing virtual reality to the burgeoning gaming industry, well-established tech companies and start-ups alike have begun to develop hardware and camera rig systems for fully immersive, 360-degree cinematic VR experiences. Recently developed or soon-to-launch systems include Samsung Gear VR’s Project Beyond, a stereoscopic omniview 3D rig fitted with 17 cameras that streams in real time; Nokia’s Ozo, featuring eight lenses with 2K by 2K sensors; GoPro’s Odyssey, a 16-camera module mount built specifically for Google Jump’s “ecosystem”; and Jaunt’s NEO, the fifth generation of its camera systems which will be initially leased to its partners, and rumored to feature a 27-camera rig capable of shooting resolutions as high as 16K.

It was approximately a year ago when executives at Discovery Communications began to take the emerging platform very seriously, assembling top directors from across the company’s production and design teams to launch the DiscoveryVR department, which rolled out its mobile app on August 27.

“It was really, more than anything, [about] trying to jump into the space quickly but also showing fans that we were really committed to it longer term, so they could rest assured that if they came back to [the DiscoveryVR] app every week there’d be new content,” Conal Byrne, senior VP of digital media at Discovery Communications, tells realscreen.

DiscoveryVR's Half Moon Bay virtual reality project

DiscoveryVR’s Half Moon Bay virtual reality project

Discovery is attempting to hold that promise as it steers its VR production into two avenues. Firstly, the global media giant will analyze all of its on-air programs – from Deadliest Catch and River Monsters to Puppy Bowl and everything between – to see which can be further extended into the virtual realm, though a number of series have already received the VR treatment.

The VR component of Survivorman will feature a series of eight Les Stroud-fronted “experiences”; Gold Rush will also produce eight videos that plunge users into the Klondike for 360-degree stories of going for gold; and MythBusters is aiming to deliver one VR experience per episode – from small-scale implosions to getting attacked by a horde of 200 zombies – for its final 14th season which debuts January 9.

Discovery is also building what it calls “Digital Original Series” – VR series not connected to an on-air property. The network has already launched two channels on its app: Planet and Adventure.

“Planet is us going out, trying to immerse people in incredible locations, be it watching the sunset at Half Moon Bay or the Mojave Desert – it’s a great way to use VR as a passive immersion,” Byrne explains. “The other is Adventure – putting people in heart-pounding situations like mountain biking, surfing or freeboarding down Lombard Street, the windiest road in San Francisco. There’s stuff to come on the app like zip-lining through the jungle in Costa Rica, where we strapped a VR rig to a helmet cam.”

With the introduction of VR into filmmaking, a host of new challenges have also been ushered into the process, which could force conventional storytelling and cinematic language to be entirely rewritten.

Some of the larger production hurdles come in the form of traditional filming and editing techniques. From cutaways and blocking the shot to utilizing multiple camera rigs and lighting a scene, all elements are left wide open for exposure, says Pietro Gagliano, partner and executive creative director at Secret Location.

“When you’re creating a frameless story, you really have to think about how you’re architecting that experience,” he explains. “We’re so rooted in the film industry and all of the conventions that are tried, tested and true that we basically have to create a new visual language for this industry.”

Secret Location's Ebola Outbreak

Secret Location’s Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey for PBS ‘Frontline’.

But despite its many challenges, the Toronto- and LA-based content studio for emerging platforms has managed to carve a niche into the space, winning two Emmys in the process, including the first ever awarded to a VR production for their Sleepy Hollow experience. With its latest project, Secret Location helped push PBS and its investigative journalism strand ‘Frontline’ into the VR fold at September’s ONA15 digital journalism conference by fitting filmmaker Dan Edge with a 3D printed camera rig consisting of 14 GoPros for Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey. The film attempted to immerse viewers in the story of last year’s West African Ebola outbreak, which has claimed upwards of 11,000 lives.

Ebola Outbreak was very well received [at ONA15] in that this is going to potentially be a whole other visual language for journalists to tell stories and for truth to be told,” Gagliano says, noting that the company will be ramping up its factual output over the next few months but remaining tight-lipped on further details.

In a new vertical where the waters are largely untested, a question experienced filmmakers are consistently faced with is how much control needs to be relinquished in order for the user’s experience to be fully immersive. It’s about balance, says Mike Drachkovitch, founder and CEO of Ovrture.

“What we’ve learned is if it’s just pure presence, the viewer often gets bored after a certain period of time; however, if it’s too story-driven you lose the purpose of why it’s in VR,” he explains. “For us at Ovrture, it’s finding that happy medium.”

Since launching in May as the VR content studio of 44 Blue Productions, Ovrture takes a story-first approach to its development slate. Its first two projects, for instance, promise to immerse viewers into the lives of inmates at maximum- security prisons across the U.S. for MSNBC’s Lockup 360, and shadow first responders in New Orleans as they respond to emergency calls in real time in A&E’s Nightwatch 360, respectively.

Beyond Productions, Weapons section of HMAS Onslow

Beyond Productions’ immersive look at the Cold War-era submarine, the HMAS Onslow.

While there is palpable excitement brewing surrounding the medium, years of anticipation for virtual content have prompted some concern within the industry that the method will ultimately be rejected by consumers – similar to the highly touted but underperforming move to 3D television. The key difference, however, is that 3D technology is an overlay to an existing medium while VR must be treated as a unique format with a new viewership and experience in mind.

“I think [VR adoption] comes down to the availability of the tech as well as the much more immersive experience VR offers,” says John Luscombe, GM and executive VP at MythBusters producer Beyond Productions. “Even the simplest form of VR – looking at ‘magic window’ content on a mobile phone – is compelling and instantly accessible. And unlike 3D, there are legitimate educational and commercial applications of the technology that will extend the user base well beyond gaming and entertainment.”

Luscombe, who championed the VR push for MythBusters, has been expanding the medium out to traditional and lifestyle series in the Australian prodco’s wheelhouse as a “value add.”

Additionally, Beyond Productions has been busy originating VR content in its own right, including securing a partnership with Ensemble Australia, a non-traditional creative agency, to develop an immersive experience shot aboard the Cold War-era submarine HMAS Onslow. The program – part of the Action Stations experience at Sydney’s Australian National Maritime Museum – will shadow the craft’s commander as he takes the user on a 360-degree presentation through the submersible and will integrate animation and archival sequences.

“When anyone puts on the headset, it’s one of those transformational moments,” Drachkovitch summarizes. “This idea to have complete presence somewhere, to be connected and empathize with characters in dimensions we’ve never been able to access before, is truly unique.”

  • Our special report on virtual reality first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.