To check out one possible future of video entertainment, I recently took a trip to the headquarters of the virtual reality content company, Jaunt VR, in Palo Alto, California. Then I talked with one man who is using VR and other new forms of video to tell stories: the writer, director, and actor Paul Feig.
Feig recently launched his new series, Other Space, here on Yahoo. While the show is filmed for your standard, pedestrian flat screen TV (or computer or smartphone), Feig also created an immersive, 360-degree virtual reality promotional video for the show.
You can see it on an Oculus Rift headset if you happen to have one, or more realistically, on an Android smartphone (download here). An iPhone version is coming soon. For viewing on a smartphone, you should really get one of the free-to-cheap virtual reality smartphone holders like Google Cardboard. And put in your earbuds. “The experience relies heavily on the ambisonic mix, using the directional audio to direct the viewer to the actor who is speaking,” a spokesperson wrote to me.
You can experience a shortened version of the promo video in a Web viewer (go here).
At some tech events, they give out Google Cardboard smartphone holders for free. (Photo: Google)
Other than Other Space, there are more VR demos available for Oculus, iOS, and Android on Jaunt’s content page.
Above: The flat, non-VR version of Other Space.
Will it play in Peoria?
Judging from the promo, and from my demos at Jaunt VR, today’s virtual reality is a spectacular gimmick. Over at Jaunt, Sitting in a chair in their specialized demo studio, with an Oculus Rift headset strapped on my face, I was immersed first in a Paul McCartney concert, then I became a bird flying over a cliff as BASE jumpers were leaping off, and finally I was transported into a horror flick… happening all around me.
I did it for science.
These particular VR videos placed me in the middle of action I could not control or direct. In VR video, you can look in any direction, but you can’t influence where the camera is moving in space. It’s still engrossing. But when people talk about VR today, they’re often referring to game experiences, in which you can control your movement in a computer-generated virtual world.
While smartphone holders that can make your phone into the screen in a VR headset are quite inexpensive, they’re not in wide distribution yet. However, toy companies like Mattel are getting onboard: The re-launched View-Master will let you watch VR using your smartphone as the screen.
The new View-Master (Photo: Mattel)
Working under the assumption that people will soon be able to pick up, for cheap, the hardware to make a smartphone into a VR rig, I wanted to talk with Paul Feig about his own immersive video experiment, as well as other technologies that might change the way people create and watch video entertainment.
Feig: VR is serious
Paul Feig is serious about new media tools, including VR. As he sees it, “It allows us to make something physically interactive,” referring to the very physical activity of watching a VR scene with a headset on: You’re constantly in motion, trying to track the action as it happens around you. “We can make people spin around in a circle if we want,” he said with evil glee.
And that’s gold for comedy. “Anything that gets people to engage in an interactive way is great,” he said.
However, shooting for VR presents new challenges. “The hard thing is editing,” he said. In standard video, “we can create jokes in the editing room.” But when everything is happening all at once in a set built around a camera in the middle of it, he says he loses that ability. “I’m providing a form of editing by placing things around you,” he said. But it’s tough on the director, in part because he can’t be on the set when there’s a camera there that sees every single thing. “We just had to put up a security camera,” he said, and then he’d direct the actors from a different room, to the extent it was possible to direct at all.
Jaunt VR’s surround camera. I’m told there is a GoPro behind each lens. (Photo: Rafe Needleman)
“It’s not the way I normally work,” Feig said, “but it’s worth it to go for it.” Referring to his Other Space promo, he said, “I hope people watch it four times in a row and spin around differently each time.”
The comic’s best friend
Feig has produced for network TV (Freaks and Geeks; The Office) but he’s doing his new show for Yahoo (obvious disclosure: Yahoo publishes Yahoo Tech). Does he miss the old model? Apparently not: “The Internet is the greatest thing to ever happen to people that do what I do, ever,” Feig said, as we talked about the real problem for content creators: distribution. “With film and TV,” he said, “the problem is that I can’t get things to anybody. Hollywood holds distribution over everybody’s head. But the Internet changed that. If something is good, it’s going to find people. New media provides all these extra portals.”
So the distribution problem is fixed by the Internet, even though there is one downside: “The people who get bummed are film-makers,” Feig said, referring to the loss of the big screen for movies. Feig says he tries to walk the line, “We made sure Other Space would look good on a big screen, but everything I did, I have to make sure you can see it on an iPhone, too.”
The fact that people can grab content off the Internet and see it in the homes, at their desks, or on their pocket devices also make Feig a fan of binge watching. He said he made sure the Other Space was released all at once, like House of Cards. (Yahoo’s other marquee comedy, Community, is being released episodically, like traditional TV.)
“Binge watching is the biggest thing for me,” Feig said. “I think it’s the only way to launch a show these days. Otherwise, you have to hope people will come back every week. But people forget to come back.”
Since Feig is a comic artist, I thought he’d want more control of the large-scale timing of his work, but he said, “I control the timing I care about within my shows. And I don’t worry about overload. Even if people love a show, they reach a saturation point. But then they come back. And if they get really fatigued, there’s a problem with the show.”
From the Other Space VR promo
Feig seems eager to experiment with new media types. He’s done some 3D filming for the Ghostbusters reboot he’s working on. But he was much more enthusiastic about using drones for cinematography.
For his movie, Spy (coming in June), he said used camera drones for action sequences. “It’s the greatest tool in the world,” he said. “The shots look like helicopter shots, but not as dangerous and you can get in closer.” There is a downside, though: “Drones are insanely loud,” he said, so they only work for big action shots. At least so far.