Making Sense of Virtual Reality

Academy Award-winning creative developer Johannes Saam explains what is and isn’t VR.

The proliferation of new virtual reality (VR) technologies and immersive experiences is happening so fast that many people still haven’t grasped what exactly is VR.

“A lot of the time, the terms ‘virtual reality,’ ‘augmented reality’ and ‘360-degree video’ are mixed up and used interchangeably, which is not entirely correct,” explained visual effects guru Johannes Saam.

If anyone is capable of clearing up misconceptions about VR, it’s Saam.

The Academy Award-winning creative developer has been at the forefront of the visual effects world for more than a decade. His work has transported viewers everywhere from post-apocalyptic Australia in Mad Max: Fury Road to the mythical home of the Norse gods in Thor.

He’s now the senior creative developer at internationally renowned visual effects company Framestore, where he has had spearheaded projects running the VR gamut.

By the end of 2017, VR is expected to be a $7 billion industry, and over the next four years, that number is projected to increase tenfold. Despite its skyrocketing growth, VR is an evolving Wild West technology that many people still don’t quite understand.

Like an enthusiastic professor of VR, Saam explains the similarities and differences between single viewpoint 360-degree video, immersive VR experiences and the real world overlays of augmented reality (AR).

360-Degree Video: Gateway Drug to VR

Though not as immersive as VR or AR on the spectrum of virtual experiences, 360-degree video serves a unique purpose, according to Saam.

“We like to call 360-degree video the ‘gateway drug’ to virtual reality,” he said. “These videos give you the freedom to look wherever you want, but they usually don’t offer a lot of interaction and/or movement within the space.”

These 360-degree videos can fall into two categories: monoscopic and stereoscopic videos.

Monoscopic videos can be viewed on a platform like YouTube and navigated using a mouse. Stereoscopic videos require the use of a VR headset and are navigated by looking from side to side or up and down.

While watching a 360-degree video, like those Saam helped Facebook create earlier this year using the Surround 360 camera, the viewer can explore an entire world, but just from the point in space chosen by the filmmaker.

View behind the plate of MLB game.
With the Intel True VR Game of the Week app, fans can personalize their view of select MLB games. Photo credit: Intel Corporation.

As an example, a 360-degree video taken during an event like the Super Bowl might let a viewer feel like they are standing on the 50-yard line. They’re in the middle of the action and can look to the sidelines, up into the stands or at either end zone, but their place within the environment is completely determined by the position of the camera during filming.

However, that limitation doesn’t prevent 360-degree videos from being a step up from standard videos shot using traditional cameras.

“They have the potential to be immersive because rather than looking at a video on a flat screen, you’re getting transformed into an experience,” said Saam.

Experiences like the Intel True VR Game of the Week use a Samsang Gear VR headset app to bring Major League Baseball fans into the action. Fans can see the game from the players’ perspective by selecting up to four camera angles per game or they can watch a produced VR broadcast experience.

Computer-Generated World of VR

For those not content with the passive experiences provided by 360-degree videos, it’s time to step into VR.

“Virtual reality picks up where 360-degree video ends,” Saam explained. “Not only can you rotate your head in a swivel, you can actually move around in the space, either by teleportation or by physically moving.”

VR requires the user to wear a headset or head-mounted display (HMD). Depending on the experience, users may also need other equipment, such as handheld game controllers, haptic feedback devices or roomscale sensors.

Man wearing virtual reality headset
Johannes Saam dons a VR headset to work on visual effects projects at Framestore. Photo courtesy of Framestore.

VR’s multi-sensory approach greatly increases the “realness” of the virtual experience for the viewer, according to Rajeev Puran, manager of commercial VR and AR experiences at Intel.

Intel RealSense technology enables VR headsets to sense depth, scan, map and navigate in the 3D environment, he said.

“Virtual reality is about total immersion,” said Puran. “It leads you to believe that what you’re seeing in the headset is another world. I see people with headsets on expressing how real something looks in VR or how they feel like they are actually inside a volcano in Iceland.”

Systems that power VR have different needs than traditional PCs, he said. Using the Intel Core i7 processor, VR-ready computers have the power to deliver rich 360-degree 3D visuals, precise controls and immersive 3D sound. Intel Optane Memory helps load data quickly, shortening latency time for a smooth immersive experience.

“In a sense, technology substitutes your current reality, your current view of the world with a simulated one. It’s transformational,” said Puran.

During a VR experience, viewers not only feel like they are in a new environment, they also have the opportunity to choose how they want to navigate that world.

For example, in the LUMEN VR experience Framestore helped create for Time Inc., the viewer navigates a psychedelic forest, controlling everything from the pace at which the foliage grows to the color of the sky above them.

“You get to have a real-time engine-driven experience that allows you to interact with the items within the environment,” said Saam.

Enhancing Reality with AR

Unlike the fully constructed environments experienced in VR, augmented reality blends the digital and the natural worlds using device such as a headset, smartphone or tablet.

“In an AR experience, the real world isn’t closed off,” explained Saam. “It’s still visible, but augmented with 3D graphics. Again, you can move freely around the space, but you still have the real world as a backdrop.”

Using an AR system like Microsoft’s Hololens or the anticipated Magic Leap, people can bring fantastical elements into their everyday world, fighting space invaders in their living room or cradling a tiny elephant in their hands.

AR utilizes several methods that are available today and some methods still in development, according to Puran.

“There are holographic screens that can have images projected on to them to display something on stage,” said Puran, pointing to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s use of AR to engage audiences during the Tempest.

“There is also technology that utilizes your phone and its camera to give a live view of the world you live in, and interjects virtual or holographic objects into that view,” Puran said. Pokemon Go or AR Kit-enabled experiences from Apple on the iPhone are examples.

“Then there is projection to a set of glasses or head-mounted displays. These make it easy to view augmented objects or characters in front of you as if these augmented things are part of your existing world,” explained Puran. ”This gives people more freedom of movement, including the use of both hands.”

AR also has a variety of more practical applications. Users have the option to check the weather or filter through emails without needing to pull out their laptop, and AR can add an entirely new dimension to shopping as well.

View of augmented reality on tablet
Using a tablet, the real world is augmented with graphics and information about local businesses.

“Augmented reality is really great if you want to see how something you might buy would look in your world,” said Puran.

“You can put an IKEA couch in your living room and see how it would look. The reality is, it’s a hologram, but you can preview exactly how it would look in your living room.”

Evolving Virtual Technology

As more examples of 360-degree video, VR and AR reach the mainstream, Saam expects people will understand the differences and nuances between these tech-powered experiences.

As for now, Saam said even VR developers don’t fully grasp it all.

“It’s a whole new language that we’re still trying to define, ” he said. “It’s not set in stone yet.”

“People are still making up rules, breaking them, making up new rules. It’s still a little bit of the Wild West with this technology, but that’s also the exciting part of it.”


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