For something often hailed as a disruptive, game-changing innovation – or buzzwords to that effect – virtual reality (VR) has a surprisingly long history. The concept has existed in some form or another for over half a century, and since then, several abortive attempts to bring it to fruition have been made: from the Sensorama to Nintendo’s legendarily bad Virtual Boy.
Today, however, the promise of VR has been partially realised. We aren’t yet living parallel lives in computer simulations – thankfully – but it’s not just for training pilots and astronauts anymore: it’s become a viable tool for communication and storytelling. As inexpensive, smartphone-based solutions such as Google Cardboard complement the high-end, full-feature offering of Sulon Q or Oculus Rift, VR grows in popularity every day: a recent Deloitte survey predicts that, by 2020, the global market may be worth around $30 billion.
As a video agency, we can speak to this from experience. We’re a video production company that offers pretty much everything – live-action, animation, event filming, explainers, HD, Ultra HD, TV ads, training guides – but the most common requests we’ve received lately are for 360 video and virtual reality projects. Marketers know how effective the form can be for prospect engagement – even if they don’t yet know what it is, or how to get it right.
If you’re one of these marketers, well, here’s what it is – and how to get it right!
What is VR?
VR hasn’t always had the best reputation. In The Matrix, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In The Lawnmower Man, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In Tron, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In Neuromancer, it was the means by which…well, you know. Sci-fi writers love to beat a dead sandworm.
Anyway, the reality is less terrifying.
At its simplest, VR allows the user to experience three-dimensional images – sometimes with a headset, but not always. These headsets use a visual feed that can come from a smartphone, a computer, or from within the device itself, but they all employ special lenses to create an interactive 3D experience from a varying number of 2D images. At present, the emphasis is on visual simulation and motion tracking – though headphones are often recommended, and limited progress has been made with other senses. The basic mechanics involve manipulating a viewer’s perspective of computer generated images or pre-recorded video content. It’s less about AI than it is about creating a convincing illusion.
All of which is to say that evil cybernetic machine gods are very unlikely – for now.
VR and 360 video
Before moving on, it’s necessary to clear up the difference between VR and 360 video. VR typically takes place in a digital environment, visible from all angles, in which the user can manipulate objects and – occasionally – move around in. 360 video is always live-action, and while the goal is still to immerse the reader in their virtual surroundings, the user experience is not fully interactive, and is largely dictated by the director’s camera movements.
Throughout this post, we will use ‘VR’ to refer to both formats: for one thing, everyone else does, from Netflix to The New York Times; for another, the only people who really care about the distinction are video nerds like us and tech bloggers.
How can marketers use VR?
A 2015 study found that 81% of consumers would tell their friends about their VR experience, and that 79% would seek out additional experiences. It’s particularly appealing to younger demographics, and this enthusiasm is translating into wider uptake: the HTC Vive sold 25,000-35,000 units in its first month on sale, and worldwide VR hardware sales are expected to exceed 9.6 million devices – and $2 billion in profits – by the end of 2016.
The addressable market is getting bigger and bigger, but as a new medium, knowing how to actually address it can be difficult.
VR can be used for aesthetic purposes, it can be used for narrative purposes, it can be used for all manner of different things – but it’s primarily an experiential medium, so the overarching goal is always immersion. If you can move your head, your eyes, and, for the higher-end stuff like the HTC Vive, your body around and maintain a realistic field of vision in a realistic environment, then it’s working. If it stutters, if it suffers from poor image quality, or if anything else obnoxiously reminds you that you’re in a simulation, it’s not working as intended.
VR can never be natural, exactly, but it can be naturalistic. As a marketer, you want to create a seamless, memorable, low-latency experience – something that feels real, even though it isn’t. You also want to make sure it’s an experience that’s worth having. A tour of your premises probably won’t qualify unless you have amazing, Googlesque offices with beanbag forts, slides, and candy floss stands – or if there’s clear utility to it and appetite for it.
A VR project is more time-consuming, more expensive, and generally just more than a standard video project, so before signing any contract, ask yourself two questions:
- Can the user conveniently experience this in the flesh?
- Would it be interesting if they could?
Consider the case of Charity: Water, a company which used headsets to simulate the experience of an Ethiopian girl struggling to secure basic necessities for her family. At one benefit, it raised over $2.4 million. Some viewers reportedly took off their headsets with tears in their eyes. VR can be used to stoke empathy, provoke emotional responses, and compel them to take action.
The only limits are your ambition and your budget.
VR in real life
There are as many scenarios as you can conceive. With VR, you can provide experiences too costly or impractical for real life to a growing customer base: you can immerse them in your world without bringing them to your specific location.
As you can see from this long – and non-exhaustive – list, what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you do it.
VR can be used for:
- International education
- Online shopping
- Financial services
- Space travel
- Fine arts
- Crime scene investigation
- Cage fights
Making the virtual, reality
Your average VR project requires a lot of complicated equipment, a number of complicated steps, and a co-ordinated, heroic team effort.
In the distant future – and we’re talking ‘silver jumpsuits, flying cars, robot butlers’ distant – you may well be able to make self-shot 360 VR films on your smartphone in seconds. For the moment, however, this is what it involves.
Securing a 360 camera rig (for 360 VR)
As with VR headsets, there are inexpensive models with fewer features, and more sophisticated, costly, full-feature models for serious enthusiasts. The Samsung Gear 360 is one of many options at the entry end of the scale: consisting of two cameras with a 180-degree view – essentially, a couple of hemispheres joined by an equator. It retails at around £350.
At the more expensive end of the scale, there’s the 8K, waterproof, six-camera GoPro Omni. When you absolutely, positively have to film everything in the room – at the highest possible resolution, and with minimal stretching – accept no substitutes. This rig retails at around £3,500.
Picking the perspective
There are two kinds of VR filming: monoscopic and stereoscopic. Monoscopic filming involves splicing images together so that both eyes see the same 360 picture. Stereoscopic maps two cameras to each field of view, simulating human eyesight and depth perception to a greater extent. It’s far trickier than monoscopic filming, and far more expensive – so it’s probably not necessary for your virtual office tour. You can convert a monoscopic video to stereoscopic, but you can’t do the reverse.
If you want movement in your video, you’ll need additional equipment such as drones and dollies.
Coordinating the crew
Again, immersion is king. When your film crew looks like a film crew, it tends to break suspension of disbelief. The director has two choices: find some way for them to blend in – on the set of the most recent Star Wars movie, which used 360 cameras, they had staff wearing costumes – or hide them behind a newspaper or something.
Within a certain distance of every camera rig is a ‘danger zone’ of around 1.5 metres. If you film anything within this area, you better call Kenny Loggins – because you’re in the danger zone. If a face is filmed over the stitchline – the break between the images – it’s apt to look monstrous and grotesque.
The VR director endeavours to immerse their target audience in a specific environment, and that environment is probably not the end of a David Cronenberg movie. It’s vital to make sure all stitchlines are as far away from focal points as possible, and that the danger zone is clear of any people or objects that might get distorted.
Organising the final edit
It’s commonly believed (albeit mostly by editors) that productions are found in the editing room. This is especially true of 360 VR productions. Merging the aforementioned ‘stitch lines’ can take a week at the very least, and the more cameras in use, the more complicated it becomes.
It’s also necessary to edit out the tripod. You can do this skilfully by superimposing a reference photo over the offending area, or crudely and clumsily by superimposing your company logo – or some other convenient graphical distraction.
A 360 VR production still involves every step of a normal production process – arranging schedules, scripting, securing permits, co-ordinating creative talent, hiring extras, etc. etc. – but now it has to be done alongside all this other stuff.
Preparing your VR project brief:
Here are the questions you should ask when you brief your virtual reality agency:
- Who is the target audience?
- What do you want them to do once they have watched the video?
- How will they be watching the video? Headset? Screen? Mobile?
- What’s your budget?
- Do you want to factor the crew into your video or do you want to blend it?
- What’s your timescale?
Virtual fatalities: classic VR mistakes
VR is more complex than traditional live-action filming or animation, and there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong – more ‘frustrating and logistically difficult’ wrong than ‘evil cybernetic machine god’ wrong, but wrong enough to be annoying. Here are a few classic mistakes.
We’ll say it again (this time with feeling): VR is complicated. With six cameras, however many crew members, however many more extras, myriad stitching issues, and more to contend with, the likelihood of everything happening in the smallest possible amount of time is negligible.
Assume that absolutely everything will go wrong, and leave enough room to account for it.
Spending too much – or too little.
Your VR project doesn’t have to eat up your entire marketing budget, but you shouldn’t cut financial corners. Whenever something exciting and new gains serious popularity, there is always some chancer or other offering it at a bargain-basement price – but with ultra-low rates invariably comes ultra-low quality.
Don’t pay through the nose if you don’t have to: VR can be done well at a reasonable price. It just can’t be done well for pennies and pocket lint.
Disregarding your audience’s requirements.
The user base is larger than ever and growing, but statistically speaking, most people don’t have headsets.
If your experience is something you intend to offer at your office, or at specific events, this won’t be as much of a problem. If you’re working from the assumption that your viewer will have an Oculus Rift, you may be disappointed.
For home VR, the best thing you can do is make sure your VR experience is available on as many platforms and in as many forms as possible: from Google Cardboard to YouTube to Sulon Q.
Getting the voice over and sound design wrong.
VR and sound design have an uneasy relationship.
For one thing, cameras tend to focus on visuals at the expense of audio quality: you can hire special recorders for 360-degree sound, but this will be an additional expense. For another, static video voiceover and 360-degree voiceover are very different animals – if the actor is talking about something on the left, the user needs to be directed to the left by the narration.
Account for both of these possibilities in your budget and your schedule.
Ordinarily, it’s okay for clients to be on-location during the production of a video. But VR filming isn’t ordinary. Again, these cameras are supposed to record everything, so if you’re in the background making phone calls, staring at the camera, or making that wacky face, it’ll get picked up.
No producer wants to hide you in a bush. Don’t make them hide you in a bush.
Working with the wrong team.
Again, VR requires co-ordination and serious effort: the slightest error during filming can cause untold chaos later on down the line. The idea is to create an immersive experience that is at once clearly removed from reality, and as indistinguishable from reality as possible.
But the thing about reality is that it’s made up of little details. Our brains are hardwired to tell when something’s a little…off or out of sync. Remember: Nintendo’s early, brave, but ultimately botched attempt at VR had people literally throwing up.
Not making your prospects violently ill is the golden rule of marketing, and VR gives you plenty of opportunity to break it. If you want to win hearts, minds, stomachs, and oesophagi, hire a professional production team.
Want to commission your first VR project? Unsure if VR is right for you? Our MD Jamie Field is happy to discuss your requirements – get in touch.Spatial Audio in VR – Make your Video Sound as Good as it Looks
The purpose – and power – of VR is to provide the viewer with an experience that feels almost real. It’s a brilliant illusion. One that is achieved by not just allowing the viewer to look around the 360° environment, but actually puts them in it.
What’s more, unlike a conventional 2D video that tells the viewer where to look, VR allows them to choose where to go and what to look at. However, like 2D video, sound is as crucial – if not more so – in VR. As a virtual reality agency that can hum that Jamiroquai song backwards, we know it’s not just the 360° footage that creates the immersive experience, it’s the spatial audio too.
Lights, camera, sound, action
Spatial audio, or ambisonics, complements the 360° visuals with an immersive 360° audio experience. The sound and the visuals have to deliver on the same level – or your viewer will simply disengage.
Spatial audio is recorded in much the same way as the 360° footage. The visuals are created by several cameras organised in an array. And the audio is captured by several microphones organised in their own array and pointed in multiple directions.
No matter what your nice headphones tell you, the human ear doesn’t just receive audio from left and right. Real sound surrounds you. To recreate what we hear, spatial audio has to capture sound from above, below and around the listener.
The microphones are thus positioned beneath the camera rig to record sound that matches the distance and direction of the cameras. This literally, turns up the volume, and is much more effective than the mono or stereo audio you hear in 2D videos. Simply put, the more 360° audio information that is recorded, the more the viewer’s augmented experience is enhanced – making it all seem much more real.
VR videos are not just about capturing a location visually in 360°. It’s about providing an exciting, engaging and fully immersive experience that lets the viewer choose their direction. Sound is an important narrative cue. If a viewer hears a loud bang, for example, their attention will very likely swing in that direction. Therefore, spatial audio plays an important role in directing the visual stories in VR videos.
Spatial audio summed up in three soundbites
Spatial audio doesn’t just record the sound, it records the direction and distance of the sound. It replicates the audio for the viewer in a very realistic way, similar to what the human ear hears.
- 360° audio brings the VR video to life. This immerses the viewer even deeper within the augmented reality they are experiencing, enhancing its realness.
- It can be used as a powerful narrative tool. Spatial audio can direct the viewer’s attention, helping to drive a specific message, making the story more believable and boosting the viewer’s level of engagement.
Make sure your VR video sounds as good as it looks. Give TopLine’s inhouse director Jamie a shout today and let’s make some noise.Making Interactive 360 Video (this Aain’t no 2D Barn Dance y’all)
So, you want to jump on board the VR train and give your stock standard corporate video an interactive update? We say, go for it! But, we’d also like to gently warn you that making interactive 360 video content that is actually worth watching, is not as technically straightforward as 2D and going back and forth between the two isn’t easy or realistic, so you need to be sure of which format you want when commissioning. You cannot, for example, in the middle of your shoot, suddenly decide that the scene in the glass elevator travelling up 50 floors would be just fabulous shot in 360.
Your VR video must be a standalone project and it’s going to demand two things in impressive quantities: planning and patience. When both are in abundance, the pay-off is priceless but of course, the reverse applies too. Most marketing managers don’t have the luxury of generous deadlines which is why, when it comes to VR, pre-production is crucial.
Producing interactive 360 video is, as it happens, something we’re really good at. Our video company team understands how to plan a 360 project from start to finish and knows exactly how to guide you through the entire process. When it comes to VR, here are six areas of production that need a whole new approach.
Let’s say your 2D video has a tracking shot that takes the view through the woods and you want to replicate this in 360. Our crew will need to carry out a location recce and some test shots to work out how the dolly equipment will be edited out in post-production. The thing about 360 video is that all the equipment that is necessary to take the shot, will also be visible to the camera, but can’t be in the final video. What we usually do to prepare for this, is take what is known in the biz as a ‘plate’ of the ground where the rig would be set up, and then superimpose this over the equipment in the edit.
This applies to all moving shots. If you want to replicate a 2D drone shot in 360, we’ll need to assess how the drone’s propellers can be ‘plated’ out in post-production.
2. People and gear
A 360 camera rig will see everything and everyone in shot – that goes for you, the crew and that random colleague down the hall. In a 2D video all of these human factors – as well as other equipment such as lighting gear – are positioned behind the camera. Not so on a VR shoot. To prepare for this, our production team normally draws up a lighting plan that either hides the lights or puts them to practical use as functioning pieces of production design to light the scene.
All humans on location have to hide – or get dressed up to blend into the scene. There can be up to six cameras filming at any given time so without a clear handle on the who, what, when and where, a 360 shoot can become a logistical nightmare.
3. Grip equipment
A 2D video project uses very different grip equipment to a 360 video production. The common tripod, for example, dominates a shot and is incredibly difficult to composite out. Typically, a 360 rig is placed on a monopod as it has less surface area and tends to disappear between the stitch line of a camera (see our previous blog to understand more about stitch lines).
In a 2D video the sound operator can simply stand just out of shot with the microphone hovering above frame. However, in a 360 video this is not the case and more thought needs to be given to the placement of the radio mics. One option, could be hiding them in the subject’s clothing. Whether filming in 2D or 360, syncing the audio is a lengthy process that needs to be accounted for by the production team.
One possibility when filming interactive 360 video is to include omnidirectional audio, which adds a level of realism, changing as a viewer moves within the space, making the film that much more immersive. This does make matters more complicated however, as specialist mics are required. 2D audio is simpler with only mono or stereo tracks.
It’s no good producing 360 video content if you don’t know how your target audience is going to view it. Immersive, interactive content can’t be displayed to its full potential on a company website – it requires a 360 headset. Your distribution channels will ultimately determine the type of headset that’s suitable, but this is another factor to consider when planning.2D content doesn’t need anything but a box of popcorn to be enjoyed. VR video is a little more demanding and viewers will need a headset. There are a few different makes on the market – each with their pros and cons.
Google Cardboard is a cheap and effective way for an audience to view a 360 video. However, this headset is cheap for a reason and its design is pretty basic.
The Samsung Gear headset provides a clearer and more immersive way to view 360 content but is more expensive and your entire audience will also need to own a Samsung phone – which is unlikely.
Oculus is one of the most the most immersive ways to experience a VR video and is on a completely different level, along with VR from Sony and HTC. It doesn’t just let your audience turn their heads left, right, up, down and backwards, but also allows them to move within the video. It’s expensive though so not a lot of people have one. Shooting VR content for an Oculus viewing experience is also very resource heavy.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the world of video production is the importance of compelling content. Who cares if your corporate video is shot in 2D or 360, if the story is dull or irrelevant, no one will watch it or remember it. A good VR headset can’t make crap content good.
Making interactive 360 video content that rocks is far simpler with a kickass production team on your side. If you’re interested, we can help. Please get in touch with our director Jamie to discuss your brief.How to create virtual reality video content like an expert