‘VR is eventually going to be practically indistinguishable from reality’: RETìníZE

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  • “There’s a billion-to-one chance we’re living in base reality.” Or in other words, we’re probably all Sims.

    So said Elon Musk at Recode's Code Conference last year.

    Simulation theory pre-exists Elon Musk, but technological advances in Virtual Reality (VR) now means consumers can move past the theory and experience fully immersive realities for themselves.

    I discovered this for myself at RETìníZE - a Belfast-based VR content creation studio.

    The team have created a 3D VR video involving professional boxer Carl Frampton and his (now former) trainer Shane McGuigan.

    The video simulates the experience of being inside the ropes with ‘The Jackal’. (It’s available online but I recommend viewing it through a headset - Google Cardboard provide an inexpensive option.)

    The experience  is extraordinary. Frampton moves lightly, powerfully in front of the viewer. He has weight and volume. The coiled energy and explosive power of a world-class fighter is present, and only inches away from your chin.

    And when he unleashes a punch, you can almost feel the air disturb around you.

    “Even experienced boxers flinch whenever they’re in the middle of the experience,” says RETìníZE CEO Phil Morrow.

    The video moves into a sequence where Frampton goes into freeze-frame and slo-mo as McGuigan describes how the boxer generates speed and force through his hips and shoulders. If you want a tutorial on how to land a world-beating jab, this is as good a place to start as any.

    The video - which is about to land on the BBC Taster app - has around 200,000 views YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook.

    “That's what's really great about VR. It's a completely new medium that gives people new ways to tell stories that situate people right in the middle of it.”

    The RETìníZE ‘highlight reel’ runs through the various ways in which VR could be deployed. Their six-minute demo displays snapshots of situational comedy, music videos, living history, NGOs at work in Africa, plus a Belfast pub tour.

    Phil can see the opportunities across all aspects of life - such as home buying, car sales, and booking hotel and holiday attractions.

    “Tourism is going to be a huge benefactor once people become comfortable with popping a headset on,” he says.

    VR is still in its early phase, and Phil is excited for the future.

    “From the first film pioneers, to the earliest radio and television producers, all the fun in life is had by the first-movers in any new medium,” he says.

    “With every new project you're learning new things about how to stretch the capacity of the medium - that all feeds back into our ability as a company to deliver great innovative projects.”

    But Phil says they’re realistic and knows that “we're not going to make the movies of future just yet -  we're probably going to have to take a lot of pit stops along the way”.

    In March 2014, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion and has now opened a social VR platform called Facebook Spaces (in beta), which allows you to interact with other people in virtual space. And broadcasters are now moving to embrace the technology - Sky offer a VR app as do the BBC via their Taster app.

    Creating content for television is where Phil’s expertise lies. He has run production company Wild Rover Productions for the past 18 years and has made content for broadcasters all over the world. Credits include Just For Laughs, Secret Fortune for the National Lottery, Dara O’Briain’s School Of Hard Sums, and Take The Money and Run for US broadcaster ABC.

    Phil says he saw the future when his eldest son brought back an Oculus Rift DK1 headset from San Francisco three years ago.

    “We all tried it and thought this is phenomenal! Technology has never before made me feel like I’m somewhere else. What sort of stories can you tell if you unleash this technology; what can we do that has never been done before? It just felt so exciting,” he said.

    “VR is eventually going to be practically indistinguishable from reality.”

    With the technology and hardware now trickling into theatres and households, RETìníZE is moving quickly to capture their slice of a VR / AR market which Goldman Sachs predicts will be worth $80 billion by 2025.

    To get ahead of the competition, the company is seeking investment of around £2 million to invest in early content creation and allow them to get involved in more ambitious projects.

    Phil is looking for a “nice balance of investors”, involving investment funds and angels, through to content producers.

    “We’re not a technology proposition, we’re a content proposition. Our expertise is in developing content that people really want to see and share,” he says.

    “You can go to the best CGI movie in the world, but if the story is not interesting you're going to walk away - the technical achievement might be huge but in the end it's all about story,” he says.

    According to Phil the challenge in VR is that the consumer base is small and RETìníZE must grow faster than the market in order to establish their position.

    “You could grow this business organically, but this is only going to take you so far and you can only move at a certain speed. We want to be in on the ground floor,” he says.

    “I come from a long history of running companies in this space, and we have a good global reputation in terms of content making. But if you want to accelerate ahead of the market, that requires investment.

    They will focus on scripted drama and comedy entertainment, as well as education, training, marketing and promotional content.

    “Our ambition is to be one of the lead content propositions in the world. Over the next five years we expect Hollywood studios will be looking around and asking who makes the best VR content - and hopefully there will be an exit when they buy us,” he says.

    Shooting in VR brings its own challenges. On regular film and television sets, scores of production staff are present behind the camera. As VR is shot in 360-degrees, it means all the production staff have to get off-site.

    “That forces you to do a lot of prep and planning ahead of the shoot,” says Phil. “And because I've spent a lot of time making hidden-camera shows like Just For Laughs, this is a useful skill to have. We know how to build hides and how to discreetly conceal cameras and ourselves so people don't notice us,” he says.

    Shots also tend to be longer and scenes need to be carefully planned which means that VR is “as much the son of the theatrical business as it is of the film and television business”.

    “We're working with a lot of theatre people at the moment to talk about how best to direct content in a virtual space,” he says.

    But while VR is new technology, Phil says it doesn’t significantly add to production costs. Just like other film and television productions, the majority of the expense still derives from actors, sets and costumes.

    “In fact, if a VR presentation saves organisations airfares and accommodation costs from sending individuals to locations around the globe, then VR becomes very economical to do,” he says.

    “We try not to make VR  prohibitively expensive. We believe the people who will win in this game are those who’ve produced the greatest variety of content and learnt the most about how to push the boundaries of the medium,” he says. “At this stage in VR, you always have to be ready to try new things.”

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