Next for Virtual Reality: Video, Without the Games

Next for Virtual Reality: Video, Without the Games

Nearly all the hype around virtual reality — much of it fanned by Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, the headset maker — is about how the technology can be used for games.

Another intriguing use for virtual reality, one that has received scant attention until recently, is video. Imagine the possibilities of being able to swivel your head around within a movie, a news broadcast or a football game to see everything around a camera, not just what is in front.

These aren’t the static 360-degree images anyone can see on the Street View function of Google Maps, but rather live-action motion pictures, rendered in immersive 3-D on a virtual reality headset.

Silicon Valley is figuring out whether it can make this into more than a plot device in a science fiction novel. In April, a team of tech industry veterans from Flipboard, Google and other companies formed a new company called Jaunt that wants to bring what they call “cinematic virtual reality” to life.

Shortly after the company was started, Jaunt raised about $7 million and now they’ve collected almost $28 million more. The company said the money will be used to develop a combination of hardware and software that they say will make their vision possible. Highland Capital Partners is the lead investor in the latest round of financing, with Google Ventures also contributing.

The company is creating a video camera that it says will capture a 360-degree field of view around it. When it’s done, the camera will be spherical, with around 30 lenses (a current prototype uses about 16) pointed in all directions. A microphone will create a 3-D audio effect, so that a voice behind the camera, for example, sounds like it’s coming from that direction when a viewer is wearing headphones.

The company uses software to stitch together all of the separate, overlapping images into a single seamless 3-D motion picture. The company will release software later this year for playing its virtual reality videos through a variety of devices, which will likely include the Oculus headset and a low-tech variation designed by Google that uses a smartphone with a cardboard viewer.

“The effect is of you being transported to wherever the camera was,” Jens Christensen, the chief executive of Jaunt, said in an interview. “We think it really sets this medium apart from television and movies.”

Mr. Christensen’s short list of killer applications for the technology includes news broadcasts, in which a camera planted in a hot spot like Gaza or Ferguson, Mo., might give viewers a more dimensional view of what’s happening on the ground. Other options include virtual tourism (go inside a volcano, a remote jungle or to the top of Everest), or music concerts, with multiple cameras planted on stage with the performers.

“It gives you the ticket you can’t buy,” he said.

The company is co-producing a short, live action World War II film called “The Mission” about American paratroopers who go down behind enemy lines in Russia and are taken prisoner by Germans. The movie will include a scene in which Jaunt’s camera is attached to a parachute, offering the aerial perspective of a paratrooper.

The film was shot in Petaluma, Calif., by Jaunt’s production partner, New Deal Studios, and is currently in post-production.

There’s a big difference between virtual reality cinema and gaming: while someone with a headset will be able to pivot their perspective by turning their head, their perspective is stuck to wherever the camera, or cameras are located. In a virtual reality game, a player can move their perspective anywhere within that environment.

Mr. Christensen said Jaunt’s camera can be moved to provide different perspectives. Again though, a viewer can’t decide where they want the camera to go, as they can in a virtual reality game. The camera operator determines that when they decide where to shoot.

Other, bigger challenges loom for cinematic virtual reality, notably getting enough headsets into the market to coax creators of content to take advantage of it.

It still isn’t clear how many people want to put bulky virtual reality goggles on their faces, though the form headsets take will most likely become less obtrusive over time. Even comparatively lightweight 3-D glasses have slowed down acceptance of 3-D televisions. Virtual reality, though, is a far more dramatic change from the experience of watching regular 2-D video than 3-D screens were.

No one knows how compelling such content will be until creators start making it. Will the ability to pan your perspective in a movie or news broadcast be exhilarating and revelatory or obnoxious and distracting? Will the tendency of virtual reality headsets to induce motion sickness in some people dramatically reduce who can watch videos in them and for how long?

Jaunt and others that begin testing the boundaries of virtual reality will have to answer those questions. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, though, has attracted a lot of smart people to virtual reality, quickly turning it from a fantasy into a technology that seems like it might actually work.

“It really accelerated everything,” Mr. Christensen. “The whole space and ecosystem was jolted by that.”

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