Danfung Dennis talks about the process of making the first commercially available, 360-degree, fully immersive VR cinematic experience called Zero Point, which was released today on Steam. I see Zero Point as a historic VR experience that will likely catalyze a lot of other ideas and experiences within the realm of cinematic VR, and so it’s definitely worth checking out.
Danfung is the CEO of Condition One and actually started looking at 360-degree video starting back in 2010 when creating some immersive experiences for the iPad and iPhone. He sees Zero Point as a camera test and experiment that shows the evolution of 360-video capture technology starting from monoscopic 180-degree video and maturing to the point of 360-degree stereoscopic video using RED cameras shooting at 5k and 60 frames per second.
Danfung hopes that Zero Point will be a catalyst for other experiments with 360-degree cinematic experiences that help to develop and cultivate the new syntax, language and grammar for creating immersive VR experiences. Zero Point uses the constructs of a traditional documentary film, but yet I was personally left craving something that was focused more upon putting the physical locations at the center of the story rather than the other way around. Danfung seemed to agree with that sentiment, and that moving forward what is going to matter more is using the strengths of the VR medium to create a more visceral and emotionally engaging experience where the location, visuals, and audio are all synchronized together.
In terms of the language of VR, Danfung had many insights ranging from seeing that cuts between drastically different scenes is a lot more comfortable than moving around within the same scene. And while fading to black seems to be a safe way to navigate between scenes and minimize the disorientation from teleporting instantly to a new place, he also sees that it could be overused and that he’s interested in experimenting with longer shots with few cuts. He’d also like to iterate more quickly by creating shorter experiences that are long enough to create a sense of presence, but to be able to create a wider range of different types of focused experiments in order to learn more about the language of cinematic VR which is still in it’s very early days of being developed.
There’s also an interesting experiment of blending computer-generated experiences with live-action footage, and Danfung wants to experiment with this more. He believes that when the resolution gets to be high enough, then 360-degree video has the potential to provide a sense of presence more quickly than a computer-generated environment.
Finally, Danfung sees that there’s a tremendous potential of VR to be able transcend the limitations of the mass media, and to provide a more advanced language for sharing stories that take people into another world, another mind, and another conscious experience. There is a lot of potential to explore more abstract concepts and to use the VR medium for pro-social causes and to help make the world a better place.
Zero Point is now available on Steam here.
- 0:00 – Introduction
- 0:35 – Process of innovating and creating 360-degree video. Create powerful immersive experiences, and tried an early prototype of the DK1 and knew that VR was going to be his medium. Started with astronomy photography and use 180-degree fisheye lenses to look at capturing the night sky with a DSLR. Saw limitations to 180-degree lenses and started to add more cameras and now have an array of Red Cameras shooting at 5k and 60 fps.
- 3:20 – Mix of different video styles and techniques. It’s an evolution of different capture systems and playback. Started with 180-degrees and mono and keep innovating the technology to the point of 360-degree sphere in stereoscopic 3D. There is quite a mix throughout the VR experience. Get it out and get feedback, and it’s a signpost of what’s to come. It’s a camera test and an experiment.
- 5:00 – It’s easy to break to break presence. Seams and black spaces are immediately noticed and it’ll pull them out of the experience and it’ll break the sense of presence. A large process of trying to iron out the glitches. Have to have a very seamless image because people will notice the errors. The resolution needs to be higher than the DK2 to take
- 6:54 – Mixing the form of documentary with being transported to different locations within VR. What is VR film the strongest for? Drawing on the techniques for what we know before. Those film techniques don’t really apply to VR. Zero Point is a more traditional documentary approach, but moving forward the core experience is going to matter more. How can emotionally visceral an experience will be is what is going to be the most compelling. The scenes and environments will be key. How to best convey emotion with the VR medium is an open question. It’s a new medium and a new visual language that’s being developed.
- 9:00 – Zero Point as a “stub article” that will catalyze ideas for what the strengths of VR film medium. Designing around the location first. VR will be a visuals-first, and then audio. Design around that. This is what high-resolution and high framerate VR looks like. Hopes that Zero Point is a catalyst to start putting out experiments to see what works and what doesn’t work with the medium. What would happen if you put audio first?
- 11:14 – Length of Zero Point as a VR experience, and optimizing around that. What would the optimal length be? It’ll still be determined. It has to be comfortable. DK2 is a lot more comfortable than the DK1. You need enough time to really get that sense of presence, and at least a couple of minutes. 15 minutes does feel like a long time to be in VR watching a video. Hope to iterate more quickly on shorter experiences.
- 12:58 – Introductory sequence is a CGI experience, but most of it is 360-degree video. Interested in blending the CG to film. They’re very different. When you’re in video, then the brain can be more quickly convinced of being in another place with video IF the resolution is high enough. CG is more acceptable with the resolution of DK2. Video resolutions is kind of at the level of a DK1 at the moment. Need another iteration of panels at a higher resolution.
- 14:58 – Cuts and fading to black and the language of VR for what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a new syntax and new grammar that needs to be developed. Fading to black works, but isn’t satisfying. Long-shot, unbroken and uncut is the starting point. It’s not too slow and still dynamic, and not motion. Easier to cut between scenes that are very different than to cut between a similar scene. Longer shots and less cuts is where he’d like to go. But it took years for the language of cinema to develop. Still in the research phase of what works in cinematic VR experiences
- 16:50 – Movement within VR. Had some shots with motion, but also some stationary shots. Trying to push movement and moving through space. Need instant acceleration to make it comfortable. In film, you do easing from stationary to movement, but need to go straight to speed in VR movement. Head bob is too much when moving and causes motion sickness. Movement needs stabilized by a three-gimbal drone, and you get more 3D information. But VR needs new rigs
- 19:00 – Experiments with audio. Different techniques used throughout the feed. Put binaural ear phones within your ear canals. Had a binaural mic in his ears recording the scene, but there’s no head tracking.
- 20:32 – Different locations and different experiments with the scenes. The driving force is what is an effective VR experience? Direct engagement? Having things happen around you? Be a character and have an avatar and have some interaction. There will be a wide area of different experiences. People and animals and complex environments is compelling. Directly addressing the camera, and you start to feel like you’re there in real life. If you react as if you’re there and react to social cues, then it’ll get that sense of presence.
- 22:34 – Power of VR is that it can put you in another conscious experience, put into another mind and another world. It’s a new form of communication and a new form of emotion. Apply this to situations that are abstract like global warming, and potential use it for pro-social goals. We can go beyond the type of content that we’re used to that is mainly controlled by mass media. It could provide a more advanced language for sharing stories in a new way. VR has tremendous potential, and it’s such early days still.
Zero Point Official Trailer from Condition One on Vimeo.
Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio