Sunday 23 October 2016

Reality bytes - the first virtual-reality feature film is here

The first feature film made entirely for virtual-reality entertainment proves that the new medium has many disciples

Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30

Future of storytelling: 'Jesus VR: The Story of Christ' will be released exclusively for virtual reality headsets
Future of storytelling: 'Jesus VR: The Story of Christ' will be released exclusively for virtual reality headsets
Oculus Rift
Google cardboard

Jesus cries out on the cross as the nails are driven home. But you're not paying attention to the crucifixion scene because your eye has been drawn to an extra, way out of shot, who may or may not be picking his nose.

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Such are the pitfalls for the makers of 'Jesus VR: The Story of Christ', described as the first feature film to be shot in virtual-reality format. Virtual-reality (VR) enables the viewer to look wherever they want during a scene - up, down, behind, anywhere in 360 degrees, in fact - meaning a director has to work extra-hard to focus your attention where it's most needed.

Excerpts from the 90-minute 'Jesus VR' movie debuted at Cannes last month, with a full release scheduled for Christmas.

"It's the most important story ever told on the most innovative platform ever made," producer Alex Barder told his audience at Cannes. His film may be populated by a cast of near-unknowns, but this is a historical feature with a sizeable budget, shot on location in Italy and sharing an executive producer with Mel Gibson's 'Passion of the Christ'.

However, you won't be watching 'Jesus VR' in cinemas. Instead, it will be released exclusively for a range of virtual-reality headsets, the latest of which launched yesterday.

Sony's new PlayStation VR headset joins the virtual-reality scene at a pivotal time in the medium's development. VR has been waiting for its big moment in the sun for decades, but it's not until now that computing power has caught up, making the tech small, smart and fast enough to fit inside a set of lightweight goggles.

In 2014, Facebook pounced on leading VR candidate Oculus, paying $2bn to acquire its Rift headset and promising to change the way we interact socially. Yet more than two years later, Oculus remains a rich man's plaything, costing approximately €1,500 for all the necessary hardware.

It won't be this high-end market that will propel VR into the mainstream. Low-end tech from the likes of Google with its hilariously simple Cardboard headset, have a better chance of democratising the medium long before Oculus and its similarly expensive rival HTC Vive can bring VR to the masses.

Unfortunately, your first experience of VR with Cardboard is likely to be underwhelming. Cardboard goes for as little as €10 and, as the name hints, is jury-rigged from stiff card and a pair of cheap plastic lenses. But it also requires a relatively expensive smartphone (iPhone or Android), meaning you'll pay anything from €300 upwards if you're starting from scratch.

Even then, your flashy phone can't produce a sharp enough picture to fool your eyes. Most of the time, VR footage on Cardboard resembles a dream sequence shot by a hungover cameraman.

Filming Jesus VR required a custom-built camera set-up
Filming Jesus VR required a custom-built camera set-up

Yet the sheer feeling of presence trumps its shortcomings, the ability to marvel at your surroundings in 360 degrees delivers a real sense of "being there".

This visceral connection with "reality" - far beyond photos or video - has led to innovative ideas blossoming outside the world of games and film.

The UN created its own VR unit in 2015, spurred by widespread appreciation of the format as an "empathy generator". Now the UNVR app hosts a growing number of short films peering into the worlds of refugees and nations ravaged by disease. Watching the eight-minute documentary 'Clouds over Sidra' is an experience not easily forgotten, pulling you into the heart-tugging daily life of 12-year-old Syrian girl Sidra in the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan.

Another eye-opening application for VR comes from German officials pursuing surviving Nazis for war crimes. Reconstructions of the Auschwitz death camp in VR enable judges and prosecutors to accurately gauge how much prison guards knew or saw. Federal officials hope to put dozens of suspects on trial based on the VR evidence.

But inevitably the conventional entertainment markets will give VR its brightest exposure. Sky has dipped its toes into free short-form content tied to its big TV, news, movie and sport franchises, such as 'Suicide Squad' and Formula One.

PlayStation's entry into VR may be the tipping point. A middling price tag of about €500 for the relatively high-resolution PSVR headset is backed by Sony's pedigree for compelling videogames and (potentially) its extensive movie library.

VR has other hurdles besides cost to overcome - motion sickness for one; the cumbersome headsets for another. Yet seeing is believing. No one who tries any form of VR comes away unmoved.


Google Cardboard


Charmingly low-tech (just pop your phone into the cardboard shell), GC gives a glimpse of VR's potential with loads of free video content on YouTube. But Google already has plans for a more ambitious successor with its €80 Daydream headset, though that won't hit Ireland until 2017. Cost: From €10, not including phone.

Samsung Gear VR


A significant step up from Cardboard, the Gear VR still requires you to supply your own phone. With access to plenty of games and video, it's a good choice if you own one of the handful of compatible Samsungs (just not one that bursts into flames please). But limited in terms of resolution and head tracking. Cost: €100

PlayStation VR


With a slick design and mid-range price, PSVR hits a sweet spot between affordability and believability. But it's initially aimed chiefly at gamers and requires a PS4 console.

Cost: From €400 for base model to €800 for full kit including PS4.

Oculus Rift


Facebook's big hope has matured into a platform for amazing experiences but remains too pricey for most mortals because it also requires a powerful PC to run its software.

Cost: €600 for headset, €200 for optional controllers, plus about €1,000 for PC

HTC Vive

The most impressive of all VR experiences enables you to walk around while wearing the headset and the sense of immersion is incredible. But it's painfully expensive and, like Oculus and PSVR, still tethers you with fat wires. Cost: €900 for headset, plus about €1,000 for PC

- Ronan Price

Irish Independent

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