Sundance ’16: Vrse, Google execs on VR’s next steps

With virtual reality demos becoming the "new normal" at festivals such as Sundance, a New Frontier panel saw top execs from Google VR, Vrse and YouTube Originals discuss the rise of VR storytelling, as well as the democratization of the medium. (Pictured, L-R: Vrse's Aaron Koblin, Google's Todd Shaiman)
January 26, 2016

If there’s one early consensus among Sundance attendees, it’s the arrival of virtual reality as a “must-do” event at this year’s festival, and its success in drawing users of all experience levels to the devices and stories exhibited at the New Frontier venues.

The popularity of VR among festival goers was particularly evident at a packed “YouTube and The Rise of Virtual Reality” panel on Saturday (January 23), from which each attendee went home with a Sundance-branded Cardboard viewer. The session, moderated by YouTube chief marketing officer Danielle Tiedt, featured representatives from YouTube Originals, Google VR, Vrse and YouTube channel, The Game Theorists.

When asked what was different about this festival from the 2015 event – which also had a number of VR projects – Vrse co-founder and CTO Aaron Koblin (pictured, left) pointed to the ubiquitous black and white Cardboard viewers in the audience, noting that Google’s inexpensive VR device for the masses was making the technology more accessible than ever.

Then, setting the tone for the session – which encouraged sensitivity among creators for the VR user – the exec told the crowd, “In film school, you learn all the rules and then you can break them – that’s how you make great film. But you don’t just start off having anything and everything. You have to develop a safe space for the viewer and a dialog with them, where they have some expectations.

“Good VR is playing with experiences, while great VR is playing with expectations,” he said, adding that creators shouldn’t take advantage of having a user’s full attention, and the capability of throwing them somewhere they don’t want to be.

When asked where VR is going to be most successful in storytelling, Todd Shaiman (pictured, right) – head of content strategy for Google VR – noted that the technology could lend itself particularly well to documentary.

“As we move on, there’s the spectrum of live capture to CG, there’s a whole spectrum in between that takes you to places you cannot otherwise be, and thoughtfully adds components to it that can lead the story, so I think there’s a lot of richness there,” he said.

Tiedt noted the “chicken and egg” scenario between the availability of equipment and the number of VR products in the market. “No one wants to buy a 4K TV until there’s enough 4K video that makes that 4K TV worth it, and no one wants to make 4K video until there’s enough 4K televisions to watch it,” she said.

So, what will it take to democratize VR to the point where there’s a mass production of content?

Shaiman reiterated that Cardboard is a big step in that direction as well as Google’s Jump platform. Koblin added that cloud stitching – the ‘Assembler’ component of Jump that lets users piece together their video, ultimately through YouTube – will be a major game-changer.

Turning to Tim Shey, head of scripted for YouTube Originals, Tiedt asked about the commissioning strategy for VR. The exec said YouTube will primarily produce in linear, but they are looking for things to create using VR (though you’ll still be able to watch without a viewer).

“We do have a secret weapon, at least when we rolled YouTube Originals out. YouTube creators have this really powerful connection to their audience,” said Shey, explaining that if a digital creator such as The Game Theorists’ Matthew Patrick – a fellow panelist – rolled out a VR series, he would have an immediate audience for the material that would be more willing to try the technology all because of his endorsement.

With VR becoming a “new normal” at festivals such as Sundance, Tiedt wondered whether the technology and its applications in film may ultimately replace regular theater experiences for festival patrons.

“It’s so hard to tell a good, compelling story, and there is a model in film that’s not replaceable,” said Shaiman, while Koblin agreed that the medium isn’t going anywhere, “in the same way that great novels aren’t going anywhere.

“I will say, though, that spending more and more time in VR, it has changed the film experience for me,” he said. “I find it increasingly difficult to sit through the title sequence of my favorite show because I’m [thinking], ‘I’m just looking at this box here. Why is this box here?’”

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