Virtual Reality: The Illusionists

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From filmmaking to the real estate business, virtual reality is offering new possibilities for Indian entrepreneurs

THE PLAYERS AND coaching staff from a top IPL team have gathered at a cricket stadium on a Sunday afternoon. With the owner of the team proudly looking on from the stands and the IPL around the corner, the players, several of them current and former international stars, go through their fitness drills, discuss strategies in a team huddle, and later also play a practice match. Amidst them—sticking out, actually, when they huddle together—is a thin straight metal bar, at whose tip, almost like a cavalry of guns, are 14 tiny GoPro cameras. Ten of them line up around each other, two shoot the sky above, and two more capture the ground below.

The footage will take the viewer right into the huddle. You won’t just merely see it. Like a player, you will be within it, able to listen and focus on the speaker. If you don’t fancy the talk, you can let your gaze wander. You can look up to see flying birds or train your eye on movements in the stadium. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the sound of a train passing nearby.

And there’s more. On the outfield, a monster rig of eight Red Dragon cameras is being prepared for the next shoot. There’s a crane, with six cameras attached to it, which has just been used to shoot a man entering the cricket ground. As the man runs to the pitch, the camera rises into the sky, gradually incorporating every inch of the cricket field. Nearby, a drone with multiple cameras is being prepared to shoot the practice match, although it is not clear whether officials will allow it to be used.

This immersive or experiential form of media, better known as virtual reality (VR), replicates an environment allowing a user to interact with it. It may have first been conceived and developed for gaming, but is gradually finding its way into other industries and domains. Even filmmaking.

How the footage from the current shoot will be used hasn’t yet been decided. It could perhaps make it in the form of a never- before-experienced interactive commercial. Or perhaps it will be a test-run for something more collaborative in the future.

Anand Gandhi—director of the 2013-released Ship of Theseus and founder of the studio Memesys Culture Lab, and ElseVR, which is currently shooting the IPL practice match—is exploring the various possibilities of VR himself.

A day before the shoot, one of the employees in the production team explains the potential of virtual reality in filmmaking, and how this could, for instance, impact cricket broadcasting. “Who says we need to watch a cricket match the way we do now—you know, a back-shot of the bowler running in, a front-shot of the batsman taking guard, then follow the ball as it makes it over the boundary? Who says we can’t be looking at the umpire’s face, for instance? Why can’t we watch the game from the ground? The tech is now all there. It’s just a matter of figuring things out,” he says.

Home buyers now don’t have to look at the plan of a building on paper. With our content, he or she can walk into the project and stand inside the room itself

As is increasingly being said, the time of VR, and its associated industry, augmented reality (AR, in which images are augmented onto a user’s field of view) has arrived. Around five years ago, Palmer Luckey, then a 17-year-old geek in California, built a prototype of what was to become the Oculus Rift in his parent’s garage. Then, his ambition was simply to build a head-mounted display for gaming that was better than those available in the market. He took the project to Kickstarter, the crowd-funding platform, where he raised $2.4 million, 974 per cent more than his original target, and later to Silicon Valley, where Facebook purchased it for $2 billion.

Since then, the world of VR and AR has grown exponentially. The Oculus Rift has just been made commercially available. Samsung, in collaboration with Oculus Rift, is already out with its Samsung Gear VR, which requires a Samsung phone connected to the device to view VR content. Google has developed the Google Cardboard. Sony PlayStation, HTC, Microsoft and a host of other companies are also developing their versions of VR headsets. As these become cheaper and more popular, and our computers and phones become powerful enough to play virtual reality content, the way we watch films, consume news, exchange information, buy and sell products, or even how children learn, is expected to rapidly change. When Mark Zuckerberg announced the acquisition of the Oculus Rift, he said, “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—simply by putting on a pair of goggles in the comfort of your own home… By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

Even the porn industry, which has for decades anticipated this moment in time, when technology would finally be able to catch up with their POV (point of view) content, is lathered up in excitement. Finally, a film may get as close to the ‘real deal’ as possible.

Digi-Capital, a consultancy, claims around $700 million was invested into VR companies last year. By 2020, the market for VR and AR companies is expected to reach $120 billion. Several industries are preparing for its promise and the impact is being felt in India too.

Gandhi first began to develop an interest in incorporating VR into filmmaking when he was invited to Daqri, a California-based augmented reality company in 2014. For someone who had long read about the medium of AR and VR in science fiction novels, to observe the real- world developments in this field was exciting. When he returned, he was certain he wanted to dabble in it.

“It is not a thing of the future,” Gandhi says, “It is already here.”

The filmmaker plans to experiment with various forms of VR content, from non-fiction and short films to full-length feature films.

According to Gandhi, this moment in filmmaking is akin to that famous 1895 date when the Lumiere Brothers screened a short black and white silent film, Train Pulling into a Station. An apocryphal story goes that the train arriving at the station and moving towards the camera caused the audience, unfamiliar with moving imagery, to panic.

AT THE END OF 2014, Gautam Tewari, who had recently set up his own architectural practice with his wife Tithi, was unable to figure out how exactly to implement what he had in mind. He believed that the key area of improvement in architecture in India was around the concept of design visualisation, but he did not know how exactly it could be improved. “Right now, what architects do is provide static and passive renderings of projects. As a consumer, you will be given a 2D plan and maybe a 3D print of the proposed project. It is slow and inefficient. All I knew then was that I wanted to do something that was more immersive and engaging.”

VR is not a thing of the future. It is already here

Around this period, Gautam claims, he met two gaming professionals, an artist and a developer, at a social event in Noida. “They laughed at me. They said what I was talking about has already been achieved in gaming a long time ago. Gaming as an industry is inherently interactive and engaging. You are not viewing an image, but in it. That’s when I began thinking, ‘Why can’t I take this concept to architecture and design?’”

Hiring game developers and artists, and purchasing two Oculus Rift Development Kits, which Facebook sold to companies that wanted to develop VR content, the Tewaris founded SmartVizX and began to use VR to visualise designs. “Home buyers now don’t have to look at the plan of a project on paper. With our content, he or she can walk into the project and stand inside the room itself—checking out, say, the view from the balcony.”

Several other businesses in India are also making this technological shift. Blippar, an image recognition and AR company, which currently works as an advertising vehicle for brands to bring products to life through its app, aims to become a visual search platform that can recognise objects in the world visually. It has come to India and begun to work with several brands. Last year, it assisted comic book creators Amar Chitra Katha in creating AR content for Tinkle comics, where children can place their phones on the cover page of the comic book to interact and play games with characters.

Abhishek Gupta and Pranshul Chandhok, co-founders of edutainment provider GreyKernel, have been working on a mobile app, IRA, which distributes VR content for education and entertainment. They began by creating 360-degree commercials, but soon realised the promise of the technology in education. “Imagine learning about the solar system by looking at planets and the sun up close. Or learning about the Lotus Temple or Eiffel Tower by virtually travelling to it,” says Gupta.

GreyKernel currently publishes mostly CG (computer graphics) and VR content sourced from various Indian and foreign studios. It has also begun to enlist engineering students to create content for it. According to Gupta, they are in the process of tying up with some schools to set up VR labs where students will be able to learn some part of their syllabus through VR. “VR is sort of in a nascent stage right now. Everyone knows it is going to be big. But nobody quite knows what shape it will take. Will devices become cheaper? Will they be powered by cellphones or laptops? We think it is going to be via cellphones,” says Gupta.

Companies like SmartVizX plan to create VR content that can be accessible across platforms and through all devices, phones or computers. Last year, the company began making content for Quikr’s real estate listings, the real estate company Developer Group, and even the furniture firm Rockworth. SmartVizX’s VR content isn’t just intended for the benefit of clients, it is also geared to help different arms of the production unit to collaborate and work more efficiently.

The company recently raised $500,000, which it is using to start Bengaluru operations and expand R&D. The way the Tewaris see it, once they meet their goals this year and VR gains more popularity, they will begin to move from solely building VR content for AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industries, to more diverse fields, ranging from travel and healthcare to e-commerce and gaming.

“VR is the technology of the future. Judging by the response to it in an industry as primitive and reluctant to change as ours, it’s going to be as big as the coming of the internet and mobile phone. It is going to percolate to all life,” says Tewari.

In filmmaking, says Gandhi, the technology isn’t just going to change the way films are viewed. It will essentially change the way films are crafted. A piece of action now will not just unfold on a screen in front of you, but around you.

It also throws up unique challenges. Since VR cameras capture a 360 by 180 degree perspective of the environment, Gandhi had to initially incorporate special design elements for the crew to go and hide behind. But this challenge has been tackled. Unwanted images can be removed later in the studio.

At his office, as I try on the Samsung Gear VR, a white box that looks like a cross between a pair of ski goggles and a giant brick, and prepare myself to be blinded, I am transported.

In front of me, in a huge park under a bright blue sky, are people who have been barricaded and are cheering me on. And it appears, as I listen, that I am singing on an open stage. My voice has never sounded this good. I listen carefully and realise the quality of the voice isn’t just better, it is also feminine, and emerging from my right. I turn to see the lead vocalist of the band Soulmate. To my left are the rest of the band members. I look down to see I have no legs. And then I realise, I’m at last year’s NH7 music festival, not just at the concert, but right there, centre stage.

There are many other such videos, mostly of musical concerts and festivals, shot by Gandhi’s team in VR format. One of them is a series of cricket tutorials, where a cricketer, on what appears to be a green carpet on the terrace of a building, teaches you the correct technique of various cricket shots. As you move about, you can view the man and his shots from various angles.

VR doesn’t just immerse you in its content. Despite knowing fully well that what you are really doing is watching something placed in front of your eyes, the device and its technology tricks your brain into believing that you are really there, in the midst of the action. So much so that when you jump from a plane, say, you experience vertigo, and when an object is flung at you, you respond with a defence reflex. The line that separates reality from illusion is rapidly breaking down.