What’s the point of virtual reality?

VR needs content if it’s to be more than a flash in the early adopter pan.

But it’s pretty clear that in the short term at least it’s not going to have a whole lot of compelling content.

And understandably so. It’s a new medium, after all, and figuring out how to create exciting ‘experiences’, as the VR pushers put it, is going to take time. Not least because perfecting the hardware remains a sizable distraction.

VR is not cinema, although we’re being told people will watch movies in VR. VR is not your common-or-garden games console, although gaming is being primed as a major use-case. VR is not a computer either, although we’re being told it’s going to give birth to a whole new computing paradigm. The reality of VR may well end up being far more mundane than any of those early stab-in-the-dark guesses as to what its primary point is, if point there be.

I’m a VR sceptic, sure, but my ten cents says its best hope to win friends and influence people is as an educational add-on that leverages its primary trick — that much lauded ‘immersive perspective’ — to help humans better understand spaces and places in context.

Understanding scale is notoriously tricky on paper. Humans are, after all, visual creatures. Telling someone a stat, say how many thousands of people are living in a refugee camp, is one thing. But showing the scale of that camp where raw numbers can be seen in context is far more powerful. Because perspective is powerful. It leads to understanding — and moments of revelation tend to stick in the mind.

That said, the jury is still out on whether doing this ‘showing of the telling’ in VR will be any more powerful than the existing potency achieved by other flatscreen-delivered media, be it video, TV or cinema. 3D cinema has not upended the rules, for example, or overwhelmed existing 2D content. But VR pushers will of course claim their type of reality-mimicking immersion is different. Is somehow special.

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Every video viewer performs their own form of immersion, suspending their disbelief and/or engaging their imagination in order to properly sink into a piece of content. And have the content sink into them. Claims that 2D media is passive have always struck me as false. Sure, some visual content is brainless. But try watching any David Lynch movie passively. Far more is required of the viewer than just sitting and letting colored light wash over your eyeballs.

But again, if you step away from thinking about VR as the next wave of entertainment media and zoom in to think about using this tech to achieve a narrower, primarily educational aim, then immersive perspective on a space by being in a space starts to sound a lot more compelling.

Virtual tour technologies that stitch together photos to create walk through panoramas exist already of course. But they’re generally fiddly to use and don’t really do much more than show another less-than-real perspective on the scene you’re trying to understand. Looking at 3D models can get you closer. But then you risk sacrificing a sense of scale. VR’s promise is to transform you into the tiny orange stickman of Google Maps fame and drag you right inside the map. If only for the moment needed to grasp perspective and grab the sought for understanding.

Turning to narrative structure, 2D media typically accepts a linear form. You press start on the video and watch from start to finish. There are exceptions — interactive documentaries where you can choose different segments or episodes to watch in different sequences, say. But the basic structure is an arrow.

By contrast VR’s structure is far less clear. It’s naturally far more freeform given the point is to mimic life. One piece of VR ‘content’ can involve standing on the spot and just looking at stuff going on around you. Another approach might put you on defacto rails to prevent nausea, intentionally limiting movements to try to make a gaming experience enjoyable. Another might let you wander freely through some old ruins taking in scenery. Or move around in a futuristic office doing whatever you fancy, be it opening drawers, throwing stuff or using an object copier. There’s nothing very narratively satisfying about almost all of these pieces of content — hence that recurring VR word ‘experience’.

If you stop trying to think of VR as the next generation of entertainment media and rather look at it as an informational/educational tool with specific niche applications — whether it’s in real estate enabling a buyer to remotely cut down their shortlist of homes to go and view, or for doctors to visualize an operation ahead of going into the operating theatre — then its formlessness falls away as irrelevant. It can take whatever momentary form is needed to fulfill the task at hand. Nor will people be dystopically and dorkishly sitting with VR headsets on all day — no more than anyone other than a tradesperson spends all day holding a tape measure or playing with a set of screwdrivers.

What’s the point of VR? We’re still figuring out if it has a point at this nascent stage. But to my eye it looks like a rather specific tool for learning might be its most potent application.

Chornobyl360: an attempt to make an interactive VR documentary

One group of filmmakers has been testing the uncharted waters of virtual reality content by trying to combine the educational potential of an immersive VR perspective with an interactive documentary format — telling the story of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster by showing what the radioactive exclusion zone around the plant looks like now, including documenting current radiation levels in different parts of the site and interviewing people who have returned to live there, and then combining this current context with archival footage and narration to contextualize the disaster.

Their project, called Chornobyl360, aims to put VR users into what executive producer Sergei Tereshchenko describes as “a virtual museum of enormous size”, allowing viewers to explore different parts of the site and encounter different narratives along the way. The interactivity extends to not just choosing which parts of the site to explore but, for example, being able to switch on machinery to see how aspects of the power plant function.

It’s clearly an ambitious project — and one that has already clocked up more than a year of work at this pre-release stage, with at least another full year of work needed to fully deliver on their vision. No one said making good VR content was going to be easy…

The team is crowdfunding on Kickstarter at the moment, hoping to raise €30,000 to help fund completing the project, although they have raised less than half that and only have a few days left on their campaign clock. They are also in talks with potential sponsors about financing, including Samsung (the maker of the GearVR headset), and say they will also likely look to apply for funding grants since it’s a not-for-profit project with a social, educational aim.

“We’ve decided to offer nonlinear plot structure to further highlight the immersive experience that VR offers. Since you are able to explore each scene on your own, why not give you the freedom of narrative path choice? Think of our project not as a movie, but more like a virtual museum of enormous size, which you can explore anyhow you want. Our story is not about X happening after Y, it’s more about experiencing the aftermath of the Chornobyl tragedy,” says Tereshchenko, discussing the project with TechCrunch.

Filming in the radioactive exclusion zone around the power plant obviously makes for a more complex and expensive project than the average film shoot, but it seems a fitting topic for VR to fulfill pushers’ promises about the tech enabling people to ‘experience places they might not otherwise be able to’. That said, given the production costs involved (the team estimates between $100,000 and $200,000 will be needed to complete their documentary) and length of required to create this sort of rich, interactive educational experience, the VR quality content pipeline looks like it will be more a trickle than a flow.

“VR makes the personal experience unique. When you watch 3D film you see the same picture as millions of people, rather real, colorful but with no freedom of choice. VR allows you to rethink the topics and places you’ve already seen pointing your view each time to different direction. It’s not something that will absorb other media, apparently it will transform them and make changes in editing, shooting and screening,” adds Tereshchenko, discussing what VR can uniquely offer filmmakers.

“Existing type of visual media, both 2D and 3D puts the viewer into a passive position, where she can only watch the content provided. VR puts the viewer into an active position, where she can choose on her own where to focus her attention. It is exploring of the content opposed to watching as with conventional types. The same difference as seeing the picture of the building or seeing the building itself.”

How does making content for VR differ to shooting video for a standard documentary to be screened via 2D screens — beyond specific tech needs like multi-directional cameras and post-production stitching together of 360 degree footage?

“When you make 2D documentary you choose what should be in a frame and in VR shooting you choose what to hide from the audience not to break the immersion,” says Tereshchenko. “It could be equipment, gapers and everything that distract from the main action. When you choose the story you think about the location as much as about the hero because it’s a very important issue in VR. Most of the shooting are based on prediction what could happen in the frame in each direction and where the audience will look during the screening. So each possible path should be thought out. It could be 2-3 options while in 2D films usually one.”

“The other different thing in VR shooting is that we need to place or move 360 cameras in the scene the way it will be organic to the viewer of the movie (actually 360 camera is a spectator in our journey). Other parts, such as shot framing, color correction, post editing is similar to classical content. But all these stages have their own features, characteristics and problems to solve. That is why each stage requires more time than post production of standard content.”

In terms of specific challenges the team has encountered filming in the radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone, Tereshchenko says they had to be kitted out with personal dosimeters and, in the high radiation level locations, were also donning protective clothes and shoes and using special housing to protect their kit. Even so he says that getting the necessary filming permits to gain access to the restricted areas they wish to document has taken the most effort.

“During shooting from drones near the new safe confinement and cooling towers we lost for some periods of time connection with drone, but fortunately there weren’t any accidents,” he adds.

At this stage they have a demo Android app showing some of their content, but the hope is to release the fully fledged documentary on several VR platforms including Gear VR and Oculus Rift — assuming they can secure the necessary funding to finish what they’ve started. They are also want to make an HTC Vive version in future, with Tereshchenko noting they have scanned the control room of the power plant and “developed photogrammetry scene” for this purpose. Higher end immersive VR is obviously even more taxing/expensive to produce than content for the cheaper and lower powered mobile VR platforms.

What’s perhaps most telling about the Chornobyl360 story is that even though the team is obviously putting in huge effort to create VR-specific content they are also still spreading their bets — with Android, iOS and an Apple TV versions of the documentary planned. Point is, at the end of the day, when you have a story to tell and content to be consumed one thing is, above all, essential: an audience.

And for all the exotic and far-flung places it can be made to go, VR has an even more epic journey ahead of it if it’s ever going to reach the sought for mainstream masses.