Virtual reality is finally crossing over to the mainstream, but what does it mean for content creators, and what does the future hold for ad agencies, brands and consumers as we enter into the era of virtual reality? In order to explore this brave new world, award-winning digital studio Alt.vfx has created a new R&D division to push the limits of technology and creativity as far as possible.
A cursory glance across social media will show any casual viewer the explosion of virtual reality content being created and consumed in 2016.
360-degree video content – which allows the viewer to drag the screen via desktop or pitch and tilt via mobile – has gone from being a novelty to something ubiquitous in a short space of time. Technology providers like Oculus, Samsung and HTC have started making hardware available to the masses, and giants like Google and Facebook are investing heavily in the future of this visual content.
Left to right: Tyrone Estephan and Raymond Leung
“We were all keeping a watchful eye on the whole virtual reality landscape“ said Alt founder Colin Renshaw. “But when Facebook paid $2billion for Oculus in 2014, that’s when everyone in the industry realised that this was something that couldn’t be ignored.”
Takeshi Takada, executive producer and co-founder, agrees. “To anybody who has been paying attention to VR from a tech and a creative point of view, that was something that really marked a line in the sand. Facebook aren’t into something like that to try something bespoke or something cool and temporary. They’re into it to make it available to everybody, they want to change the world.”
Fast forward two years and VR hardware is available in a variety of forms, and whether it’s Samsung Gear, HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, the technology has gone from being a developer tool to being a relatively affordable consumer product. It’s an evolving era, and here in Australia, Screen NSW even held the country’s first ever Virtual Reality development initiative – 360 Vision – in June 2016, a sure sign that VR is high on the agenda for content creators in the country.
Taking risks with Captain Risky.
Brands, artists and events are now taking full advantage of this emerging medium, and after stepping into the market with a job for the University of Queensland, Alt.vfx went on to create one of this year’s most memorable VR brand experiences with Budget Direct’s ‘Captain Risky’ campaign.
Using 360-degree technology, the company produced a virtual reality ‘public participation’ spot that immersed users within the ad. A live action foreground was blended with a fully digital CG background, allowing the viewer to experience the death-defying stunt from the passenger seat of Risky’s stunt car. An extension of Budget Direct’s TVC campaign, it was made possible thanks to a close relationship with both the end client and the agency involved.
“Jonathan Kerr (Budget Direct’s head of marketing) was on the shoot with us for the TVC, and standing in the stadium he asked me what was new, what was cool,” laughed Colin. “When I launched into an excited conversation about VR, I pitched the idea that we (the viewer) could be sitting in the car with Risky as he does the stunt.”
The key to optimising the budget for Alt was the fact that, having already created all of the CG assets required for the original advert, they were able to utilise those to provide a new VR experience for the brand. Two versions were produced; a VR spot where viewers could insert their Android mobile into a Google cardboard headset, and a 360-degree version accessible online.
“Our whole push is to find ways to leverage what we do, and do well, and make a VR experience a logical next step for a brand. In this case, it allowed us to offer an innovative extension of the campaign,” commented Takeshi. “We created all of those assets, the CG car, the CG ramp, the CG crowd, so it was substantially more affordable because we had already made that world for the TVC and could repurpose it for something completely new.”
“The more we can be involved in the creative, the better,” added Colin. “The whole post-production model is becoming irrelevant almost, and agencies and clients are now inspired by the possibilities when you involve companies like ourselves from the very outset. That Captain Risky 360 spot came about because of the close relationship we have with the client and the agency, which is great.”
Expanding the virtual possibilities
Energised by the success of that project, the company has recently taken a huge leap further, establishing a new division – Alt. R&D – with the sole purpose of creating new and innovative content within the VR space.
New Chief Technologist, Raymond Leung and Senior Producer, Tyrone Estephan have joined the fold, bringing complementary skillsets and an equally passionate outlook to the company’s VR offering.
While a lot of companies in the current Australian industry are focusing on the shooting, stitching and compositing of filmed captured content to create the 360-degree videos, Alt’s ambitions lie in one of their greatest strength – the creation of amazing, fully CG visuals.
“They said come join us, and together with Tyrone and the rest of the team, we will build whatever you want to build,” said chief technologist Raymond, whose background includes a rich history in both gaming and VFX. “So far we’ve been taking existing assets that we have from previous jobs, and putting them into a real time environment using Unity and Unreal Engine. We’re not doing work twice, we’re not creating work that isn’t usable in both CG environments and real time game engines, so part of my work is to try and optimise that kind of pipeline.”
“That 360 content – 360 vision – is what most are familiar with,” added senior producer Tyrone. “Those guys are out there shooting content, more often than not in monoscopic, and although that stuff is interesting, it is limited user experience. The team here at Alt are talking about a different thing. We’re talking about what I would call true VR, which is taking pre-rendered content and putting it into a game engine and using real time rendering. That is the next step. That is the future.”
Raymond agrees, “For me, I think the future of VR is going to be real time. I’m sure you can look at 360 video on YouTube all day and consume content that way, but to be really immersed and to be interactive is the way to go. Imagine being able to walk into a room and pick objects up? Being in a headset and looking at a monoscopic image is viewing, not immersion. Of course, once you turn it into stereoscopic, you get depth, and it’s closer. But then the next step is real time immersion, with sound, positional tracking and all the add-ons. The technology is there to create these real time environments, the only thing that is lacking in them is the quality of the visuals, which is where Alt comes in.”
How can brands use VR?
While many see the gaming industry as the natural home for VR technologies such as Oculus or HTC Vive, other notable tech triumphs include Google latest Spotlight Story, Pearl, a wonderfully creative use of the VR medium to tell the touching story of a father and daughter’s evolving relationship through the eyes of their beloved hatchback. Marvel too are just one of the studios producing VR experiences to tie in with their latest superhero blockbusters, in conjunction with Samsung Gear.
But of course, with something as powerful as VR, its potential isn’t just in entertainment, as people who work on the leading edge like Alt can see.
“One very powerful experience I had in VR was watching footage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal,” said Tyrone. “Just a very moving and immersive historical document. While that was captured 360 content, studios like ours have the ability to recreate historical scenes from the past in VR using CG, giving the viewer the ability to feel like they were actually there. That’s a much deeper learning experience than looking at photographs or reading a book.”
“A lot of industries could be revolutionised by VR,” agreed Colin. “There’s therapeutic potential for those that aren’t able bodied, for instance. Brain surgeons could step inside the brain, opening it up in a virtual environment instead of reading about it in textbooks. You could teach fire fighters to combat virtual fires before they even enter the field. The mining industry, the oil rig industry, the travel industry…all of this potential is there, waiting to be tapped.”
However, on the more traditional advertising side, there’s till some trepidation as to how the tech could be exploited to its full potential.
“I think a lot of the agencies now are thinking about VR, but nobody really has a firm grasp on how to utilise the technology,” said Raymond. “Everyone is coming up with 360 videos, but nobody has really done any interactive stuff, and part of our creative process at Alt is to look at a job and think ‘if we could turn this into a VR experience, what would it be, what does it look like, and why is it necessary?’”
“Beyond the creative and beyond the R&D, what is the user experience? That’s the first question brands have to ask themselves,” Tyrone states. “Is it an activation event? Is it for education? Is it for someone to look at on his or her phone? For example, you have a billion kids on Facebook – that’s where the data is going to be eaten up. They don’t need a headset; they just look at it via their phone display. Once you know the user experience, you can plan how our R&D and our knowledge is going to influence the creative, and then we can pitch ideas from that.”
As well as these stand-alone experiences that branded immersive content would offer, there’s also future possibilities of display advertising within the digital world, as Raymond points out. “Think about it like the development of the internet. We had regular pages with just text and images, and now we have video adverts on every website you go to. If you are consuming VR content and you have your headset on, there’s no doubt that eventually someone will create a pop up that will display a VR advert. At some point agencies and brands are going to have to look at it. People are going to be stuck in headsets, it’s a captive audience, and so at some point someone will create that kind of content.”
The brave new world
With his background in visual effects and VR, including an innovative VR project for the Northern Territories Government recreating the bombing of Darwin, Tyrone is keen to emphasise the emerging nature of the new technologies.
“Clients and content creators have to realise that this isn’t visual effects. This is virtual reality. It’s a different thing,” he states. “It’s not a trend. We’re working on a whole new frontier. In Sydney, those working on VR projects – such as the guys from Rapid or The Pulse – we’re starting to do our own meet up groups, because no-one is competing with each other at the moment. You just need to have that dialogue, that creative community of people all working towards the same goals. We’re all excited to be part of what is a new medium that is emerging.”
Alt co-founder Colin is also excited by where this new medium is heading, wherever that may be. “Google is doing some beautiful things with VR, and really highlighting the potential of the platform with things like Spotlight Stories,” he comments. “Elsewhere, their Google Daydream could be the next leap forward for bringing VR deeper into the public consciousness. Since our focus is going to be real time, game engine powered VR, we’re very excited by things like PlayStation VR, which will continue to push the limits of what we do with this new medium.”
So while the consumer will have a range of options in terms of how they consume VR content, from a content creator’s perspective, the hardware or software used to create it won’t matter, it’s the approach that counts.
“In terms of story-telling, when we talk about R&D influencing creative, in many ways what we mean is that we are learning how to tell stories in the new medium. That’s no easy thing. It becomes our point of difference,” states Tyrone. “In the very early days of cinema, the cut wasn’t part of the visual language, it was just one static shot. That has evolved to where we are now. VR is like a director learning his trade with a camera, it’s a new way to tell stories and so we are all back in the class room again.”
“In terms of creative tools, everybody will have access to the same stuff like Unity, Unreal Engine and the likes. There’s nothing really tricky or magic about it, it’s just how that’s applied,” affirms Colin. “From an Alt perspective, it is the people and the creativity that drives everything. The potential of VR as a medium is obvious to everyone now. We will just keep on pushing until something is perfect.”
If you would like more information on Alt.vfx VR projects and capabilities, contact Senior Producer, Tyrone Estephan at T +61 2 9199 8008