July 3, 2018
The Oculus Go has finally hit the shelves. I drew my wallet and bought one the day after it became available. Having been tethered to my PC, it was certainly an enticing prospect. One of the biggest clinches in my decision: the Go arrives with a plethora of free apps and experiences to take a deep dive into VR — no phone, no cords.
This is a step in the right direction. Offering untethered, instant access to immersive content for consumers at a much lower price point should drive adoption on the viewing side. However, it’s also an appropriate time to consider the reasons why there is still a lack of high-quality content on the creative side. Even if the cost of the headset comes down, if the experiences aren’t compelling, the market will still be stalled.
Browsing through the many experiences on the Oculus navigation menu I quickly realized that many, if not the majority, of the ‘cinematic’ content is monoscopic 360 video. A lot of it is riddled with stitch lines and artifacts. Most of it still has the tripod visible at the south pole. And this is for the stable, ‘comfortable’ footage. Let’s not get into the numerous roller-coaster videos that induce immediate motion sickness, plastered everywhere on the home menu — this is the very thing that ultimately detracts someone from jumping back into the headset. But why is the quality so poor and the go-to format still monoscopic 2D? Why isn’t there more quality 3D content?
Let’s take a minute to consider the current camera offerings on the market in Summer 2018, and how the current crop of hardware is playing to the advantage of the lower quality offerings — and may still be the big barrier to VR adoption.
Market 1: Consumer Cameras
On the ‘consumer’ end of the spectrum, the price points are affordable for recreational users, the output of the video is largely monoscopic (2D) 360 capture and the resolution is acceptable for playback on social media (YouTube, Facebook etc.). These cameras are largely for hobbyists, those wishing to delve into basic 360 capture, to try it out for themselves. Fun experiments. ‘Selfie-on-a-stick’ cameras.
The Samsung Gear, the Insta Nano and the Insta One are targeted at the social media market, allowing live-streaming (with a few seconds delay) in flat 360. Attach the camera to your phone and you are good to go. From a marketing standpoint it’s an attractive vertical to target, but it’s simply 360 video meant for consumption while scrolling through your Facebook feed on the smallest screen possible. It’s not great for viewing in a headset. The quality is just not there.
But the price points are attractive so people buy them. The Samsung Gear is still one of the best selling 360 cameras on the market, and the sexy branding campaigns from Insta360 for their cameras mean that it’s increasing in popularity in the social vlogging community.
GoPro have joined the party by releasing the Fusion in late 2017. Again, just as their stalwart cameras changed the game for action cameras and innovated consumer video-making, their offering to the 360 market is intended to do the same thing; to be mounted on helmets, or on the wheels of planes, or [insert cool camera angle here].
We are even seeing the emergence of video distribution platform companies focused on this targeted vertical. Vrenetic, for instance, have developed Vresh, a ‘virtual reality social media app’. They are basically using cameras such as the Insta360 Nano to live stream to social media in an attempt to foster a shared community of content. Others exploring similar concepts include OM Digital and several experiential marketing agencies adding entire departments for ‘social’ 360.
And it seems like every day there is another low cost camera solution for delivering consumer quality 360 content hitting the shelves of B&H or appearing in the annals of Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Remarkably, campaigns including TwoEyes VR, Fitt360, Luna360, Moka360 and the Kandao QooCam, have smashed through their fundraising ceilings. Some of them have still not shipped or delivered a product. All of them are aimed at the social market.
Still, none of them have the capability of delivering quality, immersive content. The kind of the content that will get consumers excited about the VR experience, and keep people coming back to the their brand new Oculus Go.
Net net, the state of the consumer camera market is still about watching video on a screen. And that creates confusion for consumers and creators, and may actually be hurting the VR market. When people hear VR, many are still thinking jittery, badly stitched 360 video. And this is only going to become more important now that people are hopping into headsets and wondering why certain things are not as impressive as they imagined.
Market 2: Professional Cameras
Not until we move dramatically up in price do we begin to encounter quality stereoscopic, 3D 360 capture. These cameras deliver what many refer to as the full 3DOF virtual reality experience. Stereoscopic capture in full 360 with high resolution. This footage is truly intended for headsets.
The pattern now becomes bigger cameras with more lenses and more intense form factors. All of these cameras also require much more compute power, typically several high end Nvidia cards, or access to a compute farm in the cloud.
None of these cameras is really expected to be used for live broadcasting. For the most part, these cameras depend on extensive post-processing of the video. All of them offer accompanying software packages for thorough post-production and none of them are built on marketing campaigns targeted at social media users.
As the price goes up so does the cinematic quality. Cameras like the Insta360 Pro and the newly announced Obsidian Go fall into the mid-range price region, designed for cinematic quality, and are subsequently popular choices for filmmakers looking to dive into the medium. It could be argued that they fall into the grey area that is referred to as the ‘prosumer’ bracket; creative consumers who know a thing or two about how to create compelling VR content without totally breaking the bank.
The Yi Halo, the next generation Google Jump, and the 360 Round, the latest market offering from Samsung, both have best in class imaging and deliver some of the finest quality VR available. These cameras define professional and are some of the most expensive devices on the shelves. When Nokia announced the demise of the Ozo in fall 2017 a mad scramble unfolded as to what could potentially take its place, and while none have conclusively been labelled its successor, it’s these models that the high-end companies and studios flocked to as interim solutions.
To achieve these immersive properties, new additions to this side of the market now have benchmarks to meet, as well as expectations to exceed. In a recent announcement, Facebook’s partnership with RED cameras squarely aims for the upper end of the market — studios and professional cinematographers looking to produce high-end VR.
VR Scout recently polled the weapons of choice for a host of professional VR creators —cameras that meet the standards of high-range price points and capture the best in class available— and it’s interesting to see which devices are emerging as the most popular.
Furthermore, in a recent interview with Film Independent, Ryan Horrigan of Felix & Paul Studios (A pioneering company in cinematic VR) explained why going for professional solutions is integral to the creative ambitions of a filmmaker, ‘ know the strengths of the medium: interactivity, agency, subjectivity and intimacy… going down the path of live action capture 3D 360 or even volumetric capture’, whilst advocating both the Yi Halo and Z-Cam offerings.
But this is the reality. The cameras that can deliver best in class immersive VR video all require a skilled operator. Whether it is understanding the camera’s stereo sweet spot, or how to deal with lighting conditions, these cameras are both expensive and demanding.
It’s Either Social or Immersive, But Not Both
One of the biggest virtues of the consumer cameras is their ability to deliver video streaming — even if it is just monoscopic, or questionable stereo — but not a compelling VR experience.
Some of the latest additions to the premium side of the market claim they can deliver live VR in full 360 stereo, but the quality drops off precipitously almost to the level of the consumer cameras in terms of basic stitching. And even with racks full of computing, most still take minutes or even hours to produce reasonable video. None are able to truly deliver real-time (less than a second) of latency, something essential in unlocking the next generation capabilities of stereo capture: telepresence, machine learning and remote visualization.
In a nutshell, if you want professional performance and capture, then be prepared to put your money where your mouth is and willing to take a deep dive into the accompanying technology pipelines. This side of the cost pipeline is for serious creators only and these experiences will not be found sitting comfortably on your Facebook feed.
But if you want live and social, your video quality will suffer — dramatically.
The Need To Differentiate The Market
Now that I have an Oculus Go I can finally show my friends high-quality content as opposed to having them scroll through some lackluster, wonky footage on their phones. It’s essential that the experiences designed for headset usage begin steering towards a minimal standard of quality. It’s important for creators to know what they’re paying for, and what they can expect the results to be.
The VR camera ecosystem is really a tale of two markets; social, consumer 360 video and professional cinematic 3D 360 content. To compare them is akin to comparing a Polaroid camera to a DSLR.
And although for camera makers it appears daunting to be entering the race at this stage, accompanied by a plethora of new additions each quarter, it’s not only important but essential to deliver more advanced technology as it becomes available. Now that VR is paddling out of the trough of disillusionment and the hype has mutated over to AR, the sweet spot of the development journey is present.
But how do we bring the immersive power of quality VR together with the opportunity of live, social media? Do we specifically appeal to only the upper echelons of creative studios and professionals, or do we adjust the focus to shine a light on the potential possibilities of the ecosystem in the making? It’s through real-time high-end stereoscopic capture that the next steps for AR and AI, as well as smart cities, will be unlocked. Essentially these devices are just a piece of a much larger puzzle that is unfolding, one that will change just about everything related to immersive entertainment and next generation computer vision.
We just need to think about the problem differently.
This guest post first appeared on Medium.