In Your Face: Photography In The Age Of Virtual Reality

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Just as this issue was going to press, Pokémon GO swept the country. Overnight it seemed like everyone was looking face-down at their phones, flicking pretend balls at pretend creatures. Thanks to the intelligent use of a smartphone’s camera, developer Niantic is able to superimpose the various wild Pokémon in a video stream of the real world, a technique that’s called augmented reality (AR).

It might not seem like this portends anything for photography’s future, but the incredibly rapid adoption rate of Pokémon GO showed that consumers are hungry for the dawn of a new era of media. The game’s AR is a relatively simple trick; a programmer just needs to combine GPS and camera data to make a fun game. But just as Pong ushered in an era of gaming, this off-the-charts success is ushering in virtual reality (VR).

There are three types of virtual reality, and all of them create new opportunities for the photographer. The first category, which Pokémon GO falls into, is augmented reality, any system where something visual, audible or tactile is superimposed on the real world, but where the real world is the primary focus. Augmented reality can be implemented on anything from a smartphone to a car. In fact, fighter pilots have technically used AR for years thanks to heads-up displays that superimpose flight data in their line of sight.

 

GoPro Odyssey press image
GoPro Odyssey

At the other end of the spectrum is full-blown virtual reality, often delivered via a headset and some tactile device to interact with the world. Everything in VR is delivered to the user by the system, so the visuals—be it stills or video—are generated by an animator and/or photographer. While VR rigs used to be expensive, the price has plummeted as the technology has matured. Google even shipped a cardboard headset that a smartphone slips into in order to deliver VR content from partners like the New York Times. Placed in front of the viewer, the phone’s screen is the right distance to provide a (relatively) immersive experience.

Between AR and VR is mixed reality (MR), which uses a modified VR setup to superimpose objects in real time over the real world, while providing more direct interaction. MR rigs are headsets that allow for some forward-looking vision, either by having the screen semi-transparent or by using forward-looking cameras.

Many people consider MR and AR to be the same thing, but for the purpose of this discussion I’m relegating gaming-level technology on a phone or other mobile device to the AR category, and technology that uses a headset and other feedback mechanisms to MR.

Samsung Gear VR press image
Samsung Gear VR

Many of those who have used a really good VR system—myself included—talk about the transformative power of the experience. The human mind has a very hard time differentiating between reality and VR when it’s done right. Full-on VR is the most captivating, but MR actually has more interesting potential—imaging playing games with full 3D worlds and the life-like character rendered right in front of you. If you could reach out and shake hands with your Pokémon, walk around it and actually interact with it, that would be a whole new world.

Today’s Headgear Is Different

While VR has been promised for decades and has existed in various forms for some time, the technology is finally ready for its close-up. The rapid scaling-up of the power in mobile devices and mobile devices as well as a serious push to launch VR-only hardware companies has made VR practical. In 2012, a company called Oculus ran an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the design and development of a VR setup it called Oculus Rift. The company released several developer tools and then in 2014 was gobbled up by Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for $2B in cash and stock.

That acquisition was the sign that other companies were waiting for that VR was finally ready to perform. Facebook is uniquely aware of the power of immersive technology, and the fact that a startup VR firm would be worth $2B showed that Facebook sees VR as the next big thing.

Oculus Rift press image
Oculus Rift

The Oculus gear consists of a relatively comfortable headset and headphones plus motion tracking to position the user in the virtual world. It’s the stereotypical headset you see in any media representation of VR and will be the look of VR for the foreseeable future.

Companies like Google were also working hard to bring VR to market, and its Google Cardboard is just the tip of the iceberg, yet the company is working on a different hardware model. Google is focusing, unsurprisingly, on the mobile market and using VR to shore up the companies there.

Its first public-facing product, Google Cardboard, was a big hit, despite its limited release just to subscribers of the New York Times, as well as being distributed through a few corporate partnerships. This year Google will release Daydream, a VR platform that will be built into the operating system of Android phones.

“Our strategy for Daydream,” said Julia Hamilton Trost, , Google VR Business Development & Content Partnership, “is just like it was with Cardboard, ‘VR for everyone.’ We are banking on mobile phones being the driver because of the scale. Billions of people have mobile phones in their pocket.”

Toth acknowledges that the form-factor of Cardboard isn’t ideal. “It’s great for one- to two-minute pieces; people aren’t going to want to hold up Cardboard [to their face] for more than that.”

Daydream, she says, will “have phones built from the ground up for VR with lower latency, better head tracking and performance for VR. In the fall, we’ll have a number of phones at launch [of Daydream] that are VR ready, and the next year 20 more.”

Samsung is another heavy hitter in the VR space, with a mobile-phone-specific VR headset already available, the Samsung Gear VR. The headset works with a number of Samsung Galaxy phones and includes its own gyrometer and accelerometer, and an optical lens that makes the images on the screen look more realistic. The company is also teasing the Gear VR, a wearable camera for capturing VR video—think of it as an action cam that provides an immersive VR view.

Google is also working to simplify the process of capturing the panoramic stereoscopic video needed for VR, through a tool combination of hardware and software that removes much of the cumbersome stitching and assembly work to make footage look realistic. Jump works with the GoPro Odyssey, a VR rig that has 16 GoPro units assembled in a circle to capture a 360º panorama with both down-facing and up-facing views.

Neither Jump nor GoPro Odyssey were available at launch, but they’re on their way, and they’re going to make it much easier to create VR. Jump takes footage from the upcoming GoPro system and then uses the Cloud to crunch the massive visual information.

This last part stopped me in my tracks when Toth explained it. While there are incredibly powerful desktop systems like Apple’s MacPro that could chew through the footage, Jump instead uploads the data and uses the enormous power of server farms to create the final content. That means that both broadband connectivity and Cloud performance have reached new, previously impossible levels.

Interestingly, there is a market that could help VR adoption that’s rarely talked about—pornography. While we won’t weigh judgment on the content here, there’s no denying that the industry will help drive hardware sales just as it did sales of VHS and DVD players. Market analysts predict that porn will be the No. 3 revenue generator in VR by 2025, accounting for more than a $1 billion in business, just short of the predicted videogame market ($1.4B) and “NFL-related content” ($1.23 B). Any industry that can rack up a billion dollars a year via a specific technology helps guarantee that technology’s adoption and growth.

The gear has arrived, the interest—if Pokémon GO is any indication—has definitely arrived. The question is, what’s in it for the photographer?

Creative Photography For A New Era

VR is so new that there are not yet any dominating players when it comes to content creation, and since the number of users is increasing, the market for content is only going to grow, and right now there’s no clear path to becoming a creative in the VR world.

There’s one important thing to note when it comes to the opportunities that abound in the new industry, and that’s the obvious power of video. The majority of VR world will be either computer generated or will be captured with video rigs. That doesn’t mean that the photographer will have no opportunities, and it means that photographers that have already incorporated some video work into their business will be in a good position.

A video system like the GoPro Odyssey will initially cost around $15,000, which is a large sum, but it’s less than the cost of most new medium format cameras and equal to a top-end SLR and lenses. As more tech companies get into the content creation market, the prices in video-capturing gear will start to plummet.

Even if you have no desire to shoot video, there will absolutely be parts of the VR world that need photography. From conceptualizing video games to storyboarding a script to creating the images that are viewed in VR and MR rigs, photographers will have some interesting opportunities.

The brightest possibilities, though, are open for the photographer who’s willing to incorporate VR video in their workflow. “I’ve seen a lot of documentaries,” says Google’s Toth, “ABC News has done some great work. They’ll go into Syria and areas you can’t go into. Travel is absolutely an open market for VR. If you look at Discovery [the TV network and content publisher], they have a beautiful app that’s already up. NY Times does travel plus documentary. I think entertainment will come later…There is a lot of good content, but what will be compelling in VR, none of us can say yet.”

For creatives looking for jobs in VR, there are a few good starting points. The Silicon Valley Virtual Reality website (svvr.com) has job listings and links to events across the country. Job sites like Monster.com also have VR listings (monster.com/jobs/q-vr-virtual-reality-jobs.aspx), though right now they’re mostly for project managers.

The VR firms that are starting to spring up will need content creators both full-time and freelance. Much of the work of landing VR gigs will be familiar to any freelance photographer—building a portfolio, pounding the pavement and making cold calls.

But that grunt-level work should shortly see results, as VR is poised to be one of the biggest developments in entertainment since the television. The rise of VR has finally resulted in a product that consumers can enjoy and that the content creators can get behind. The great VR gold rush is here. It’s time to start prospecting.

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