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As discussed in the first installment of this two-part series, Virtual Reality (VR) offers unique benefits in engaging audiences emotionally to effect social change. However, getting started with this still-emerging technology can seem daunting. In this second post, we explore some of the challenges facing producers getting started with VR, and how community media organizations can help overcome these obstacles.
Just five years ago, creating a VR experience could be a difficult proposition. The technology required for simply filming something in 360 degrees and stitching it together was very costly and hard to come by. The VR landscape has changed wildly since then, with production and consumption technology more readily available and more usable.
However, even though the tools to create VR productions are less expensive today, that doesn’t mean that they’re inexpensive; similarly, even though they are easier to use, that doesn’t mean they’re as simple as ‘traditional’ video production. In particular, producing VR for immersive headset experiences has greater requirements than if it will be consumed solely on a desktop.
“Creating a high-quality headset experience does tend to require a higher budget and level of skills,” said Shannon Carroll, founder and creative director at New York City based studio Vivid Story. “The quality is more important in maintaining immersion for headset-based consumption. You can’t use a consumer-level VR camera and expect it to look great in a headset; you need the right level of equipment.”
It Starts with the Camera
Choosing the right equipment isn’t simply a matter of how much money to invest; it also requires matching the gear to the creator’s particular vision for the project. As always, video productions start with the images captured by one or more cameras, and variances between those cameras can have a significant impact on the VR result.
“New cameras are constantly coming out – every six months there’s another great one – but some cameras record better in certain situations than others,” explained Carroll. “With most filmmaking today, you can get a DSLR, prosumer or professional-level camera that will do a good job in most situations. But with VR, you need to be more specific in choosing which camera you need, and to do lots of research on which camera is best for your creative goal.”
To that end, Carroll suggests that VR producers may need to be more technologically knowledgeable than their ‘traditional’ filmmaking counterparts. “For VR, it really helps to understand the technology that goes into the camera imaging process,” she said. “The landscape of equipment is constantly improving and changing, so what was state-of-the-art a year or two ago might be old by now.”
While that may sound a bit intimidating, it’s important to remember that it’s all relative to the producer’s goals. Just as creating local video productions generally requires less investment and expertise than producing a Hollywood blockbuster, getting started with VR production is both easier and more accessible than creating “premium” VR experiences.
Imagination and Experimentation
Of course, like any creative discipline, VR production isn’t just about the technology; in fact, the tools are just a means to a creative end. However, as VR is enabling previously untapped communication paradigms, it’s not always easy to envision those ends – making experimentation critical.
“VR has been a process of technology catching up to our human imagination,” explained Carroll. “For those getting started in VR, my advice is to come at it with a sense of curiosity. Really learn about how you can apply your own voice to this medium, and how this medium helps you share your unique voice as a creator. And most importantly, be open to experimenting and seeing where it goes, as that’s how we’re going to push things forward not only for VR, but also further along as mixed reality (MR) that combines multiple forms.”
Kathy Bisbee, executive director of Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) and co-founder of the Public VR Lab, agrees that the best way for newcomers to get started in VR production is to dive right in and start experimenting. “Most community media staff won’t have seen VR in action to experience its potential, as it wasn’t always this accessible,” she explained. “When I first came to Massachusetts from California, my staff were not very excited about getting into VR. I bought a 360 degree camera, shot some footage myself, and edited it in a few hours. When the staff experienced the result, it totally changed their attitude. Once a champion on the team creates an example, the rest of the team will follow.”
Leading Communities to a VR Future
So, where can prospective VR producers get access to equipment to experiment with, before making their own investments in gear? For those like Carroll, working in a major metropolitan center may offer access to like-minded pioneers pushing the boundaries of new technologies, while having clients funding their VR projects may enable the purchase of the latest products.
However, for producers without such resources, the answer is the same as it was in the 1980’s, when cable access TV stations were the only inexpensive – or free – place to learn broadcast production. The emergence of VR, augmented reality (AR) and MR has created mutually beneficial opportunities for community media centers and the public they serve – the latter getting access to VR tools and education for the first time, and the former staying relevant as new technologies increasingly overshadow traditional media.
“Cable is not community media organizations’ ‘reason to be’ anymore,” said Bisbee. “While it’s still an important traditional part of our work, our purpose as a community media center is to meet the media and technology needs of our community – providing people with access to the tools and training they need to be able to tell their stories. Really what we’re doing now is expanding the work we’ve traditionally done into the XR (AR, MR and VR) space.”
Bisbee’s goal with the Public VR Lab was to bring XR not only to her own community, but also bring its benefits to community media groups and producers in other regions. “Community media sometimes has a marketing problem, with people having the impression we only produce lower-quality content,” she explained. “Our community XR initiative gives us the ability to make ourselves relevant again by becoming local experts in this emerging media technology, and helping people explore what they can do with these new tools in this new paradigm shift. Our goal almost five years ago was to build a field for community XR by creating a program that was replicable across the country. We now have 12 media centers using VR and AR to create public-interest content, making equipment available to their members, and offering education.”
To further help community media centers get started in VR, Brookline Interactive Group and the Public VR Lab offer a low-cost “train the trainer” program, as well as a VR Toolkit – including a complete set of equipment and instructions – at cost. In fact, when BIG began offering equipment sign-out again at the beginning of June 2020 after suspending the program for three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first request Bisbee received was for a 360 degree camera.
Embracing VR has also helped Brookline Interactive Group expand its membership while providing a new source of financial contributions. “A lot of people have joined us specifically because of what we offer for VR, including our first paying members,” Bisbee said. “We didn’t charge for membership in the past, but they now see our value as relevant, exciting and cutting edge, offering them a place they can come to learn new tools and new ways to tell their stories.”
Helping Each Other Forward
Even those tasked with educating others on the use of VR must constantly be learning more about this evolving medium. Commercial producers, public media organizations and independent producers alike are forming their own VR-related groups and communities to help each other learn and grow.
“My advice to those starting out in VR is to be brave, ask for help, and use the resources around you,” said Carroll, who points to the Women in VR/AR group on Facebook as an example. “We’re all figuring out how to use this new technology together, and it is constantly developing. VR technology should be used as a way to expand your ideas, so don’t be intimidated – reach out for the help you need to make it happen.”