Research firm IDC has released its forecasts for augmented and virtual reality revenues, predicting a truly astonishing growth of 181 percent annually, a rate that, it says, will take global revenues from $5.2 billion in 2016 to $162 billion in 2020. “With powerful smartphones powering inexpensive VR headsets, the consumer market is primed for new paid and user-generated content-driven experiences,” IDC says.
IDC expects hardware to account for more than 50 percent of revenue, but the driver of hardware purchases is content, and there are some conflicting views as to the health of the content market. In May, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Makers of virtual reality headsets think 2016 will be the year of VR. … Content creators, however, tell a different story. VR isn’t ready for prime time. This gap between expectations and reality means the VR hype train is about to crash into a wall.”
If you scour the web in search of guidance on creating immersive content, you might get the impression that it’s quite easy. One organization claims “thousands of hours of testing and VR content creation performed by our artist community,” and says it has “accumulated a set of technical and artistic best practices to help you seamlessly transition to 360° video production.”
There’s even a free online course where you can “Learn how to produce 360° (3D) video content like the pros and become a virtual reality expert” — just by watching 1.5 hours of videos.
But talk to people who really know about content production – those who have experience with every stage of the creative process, from idea, through production and post production, to finished product for viewing in multiple formats – and you get a different story.
Marcie Jastrow, Technicolor’s Senior VP of Immersive Media and Head of the Technicolor Experience Center, is one such industry executive. She says the development of VR content presents new challenges from the very beginning of the process.
“I think the biggest challenge is going to be learning who the new storytellers will be,” she says. “What is often written out for creative is not something that can translate into immersive experiences. If it is a passive, narrative experience where there is no interactivity, content can be created in one way. Where there is interactivity, or where you may be tethered to a headset with controllers and interacting; that needs to be created another way.”
“Depending upon what it is that you are trying to accomplish, the workflows will be completely different. You can think the experience youve written on the page is going to translate beautifully into an interactive experience, but when you start working, you might find out that the technology is just not there yet.”
Technicolor’s extensive experience in video and film production provides a solid foundation for immersive content production. She believes that the narrative style of immersive content will be relatively easy to produce, by building on current post production techniques and technologies.
“Narrative VR is probably going to play out like post production, but things like images and camera maturity, and techniques -- like stitching -- all need to evolve. In post production, those tools and special effects needed to evolve in order for images to be better and for workflows to be faster. In the passive, narrative type of VR, we think we can get there pretty quickly…We can put processes, standards, workflows and storytelling in place that will help move immersive experiences along.”
Interactive immersive experiences present greater challenges. “When we get into interactive, there are certain things that need to be fixed. Those include motion sickness, embodiment issues, or feeling that you are not completely immersed because you dont feel your body in there.”
Image quality is another area of uncertainty, Jastrow says. “A fair amount of work has been done on the gaming side, but high-end images have not yet really been realized. Some of the games look phenomenal, but is that going to be adaptable to the mainstream? We want to be able to achieve a high level image quality so everyone wants to have the experience.”
Jastrow goes on to explain that traditional post-production pipelines and visual effects pipelines will not necessarily work in a game engine. “You need to understand the limitations of a game engine in order to push the stories forward. There will be many different types of technology that we dont even know we need in order to push VR forward.”
There is, however, another possibility: audiences might be happy with images of mediocre quality. “You might find that you are connected so deeply to a piece that image quality is not all that important: emotions could drive the content.”
Complicating matters further is the rapid pace of immersive media content development set against typical production timeframes. “When you are building immersive experiences, there is often a nine-month lead time. A lot of new innovations in technology can emerge in that time frame. So you need to have a crystal ball to see what technology is going to be released and figure out how you can push it forward,” Jastrow says. “You really have to understand the future as you’re creating these experiences.”
Immersive experiences will bring many changes to the content production pipeline, but it will have one thing in common with the industry today: there’s always a need to produce high quality content for the best technology out there, while ensuring that it is still presented optimally on less sophisticated displays.
“Mobile devices are going to be hugely important because what you create for mobile is not always going to translate on to an Oculus, or on to a Vive,” Jastrow says. “You need to start like we do today with a master, and that is where the sweet spot for Technicolor will be: helping creators monetize by getting their content out to the masses via every headset, with the best image quality possible.”
She concludes: “From the generation of film, to P3 [DCI-Pp3 is a common color space for digital movie projection] to video the one thing Technicolor has always done is to optimize content for the best viewing environment possible. If your best viewing environment is a movie screen or a theatrical release, then that is your master from which everything else flows. Now we have to create the same standards in the immersive experience world to drive mass distribution.”