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The evolution of virtual reality

The film and TV industry has been trying to fight off competition almost since its inception. Along the way we've seen many innovations come and, almost as many, go away again.

Stereoscopic 3D is the canonical example, although the high frame rate of recent films such as The Hobbit series isn't new; the Showscan system ran at 60 frames per second in the 1970s. Niceties such as colour and synchronised sound have proven more durable, but the desire to avoid stagnation has led to continued interest in new things - most recently, virtual reality.


It's not yet clear what level VR competes with traditional filmmaking, but its roots are certainly in computer simulation. Arguably the first well-known device was the Oculus Rift headset, which is still cautiously being sold as a “development kit” with predicted consumer availability in the beginning of 2016.

Because a VR headset must cover the entire field of view of each eye, the demand for sheer resolution is high and the 1280-by-720 pixel design of the original Rift was widely viewed as inadequate. The second development kit offers 1920-by-1200 pixel resolution for each eye, although the existence of Nvidia's cascaded-display research project, released as a whitepaper in August 2014, suggests that even more might be needed.

Alternatives vary in sophistication. Google's, descriptively-named Cardboard, is designed to repurpose a smartphone as a VR display. The Samsung Gear VR is a slightly less primitive route to similar results. Peripheral manufacturer Razer began talking about its OSVR headset (referring to the open-source design) in January this year.

Even more serious competition comes from the HTC Vive, which is interesting not only because of its Rift-equivalent resolution but also through association with Valve, the people behind the immensely successful Half-Life game series and the Steam distribution system.

Real-time computer simulation is the original application of VR technology, and the involvement of an organisation as capable as Valve bodes well for content availability.


The interest of the film and TV industry is undeniably more recent, postdating the last boom of stereo 3D. The concerns are both technical and artistic: VR filmmakers must supply sufficient data to feed both eyes with an HD-resolution image, and of course the viewer might choose to look in any direction.

A computer simulation can detect the viewer's line of sight and render the scene appropriately, whereas full motion video requires complete spherical coverage of the scene. The sheer quantity of data involved in shooting, storing and transmitting that coverage with adequate resolution can be huge.

In a broadcast context, delay and latency are the principal technical challenges. Particularly, sloppiness in the video feed, causing the images to lag behind the user's head movements, can contribute to motion sickness.

Latency is a problem which has provoked AMD's LiquidVR technology (and Nvidia's competing Gameworks VR), designed to push frames from a computer into the user's eyes with the minimum possible delay.

These however, are solutions for real-time rendered simulation, not live video. The delay associated with sending video over the internet is likely to be literally too high for comfort, so it may be necessary to send the whole sphere and render the view locally. More than that, VR has all of the same issues as conventional 3D, which must be addressed in order to avoid making viewers uncomfortable.


And that's before we've even considered what the ideal content is likely to be. Games are imminent. Television and film could technically happen almost as soon, especially via games consoles and desktop computers which make it relatively easy to release new services.

It looks like the big players, such as Sky and Walt Disney are already eyeing the possibilities after it came out recently they are investing heavily in the technology's film opportunities. 

Whether traditional narrative filmmaking is an appropriate arena is another matter; perhaps, in the same way that television did not obsolete radio, VR filmmakers will find a separate audience. Discussion at this year's Siggraph, with presentations from companies including Digital Domain and Oculus Story Studio, raised an interesting hybrid option of storytelling within a real-time rendered world. It wouldn't be the first time that game-style real-time rendering had been suggested for filmmakers, but the proposed blend of interactive and narrative fiction is, possibly, a glimpse of the future.


All photos from Getty Images, VR football phot0 courtesy of Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports; first VR headset pic via Bloomberg/Getty Images; second VR pic via Mark Ralston/Getty Images.