The SXSW Conference is a clearinghouse of ideas. Every year brands, startups, filmmakers, musicians, and thought leaders converge in Austin. Here, they present the latest developments in their fields, share knowledge from experience within their industry and showcase their latest creations. Without fail, each iteration of the conference brings one or two big ideas or concepts that seem to dominate the conversation across all strands. In this way, the SXSW Conference works as a sort of filter or curator that captures the zeitgeist of the moment. It’s not surprising that this year, the talk of the town has been video’s next stage of evolution: AR/MR, VR, and 360-degree video. Dozens of sessions have been built around the various facets of these technologies that, although highly developed, are still in their formative period. Already, the field has begun to separate into the variant components that have developed from the same seed.
The most easily recognizable of these is VR. Virtual Reality has been a dream since at least the 1970’s and has been on a slow but steady track towards realization. It’s defining characteristic is the complete immersion of the user into an alternate digital reality by means of headsets (video and audio), controllers (handheld joysticks, gloves), and other simulation accessories (treadmills that allow the user to walk in place, etc.). The goal of all these bells and whistles is to create a total sensory illusion that is, conceptually, not dissimilar to that illustrated in “The Matrix.”
While VR places the viewer in a completely imagined reality separate from their own, AR/MR takes a slightly different approach and leverages the world outside the goggles to create its unique experience. Augmented Reality, also referred to as Mixed Reality, uses goggles that allow the user to see the real world while rendering digital imagery onto it. AR/MR doesn’t try to create the illusion of another reality in the way that VR does, but instead implicitly acknowledges that it’s illusions are being built to “interact” with the real world. The result is an interesting experience of seeing our actual reality populated by elements from the digital realm, similar to the way in which the cartoon world was able to populate the human world in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”.
Both VR and AR/MR leverage their illusory powers to generate experiences that alter the reality of the user. Further, these technologies allow the user to interact with and manipulate the digitally generated environment. The key differentiator from 360-degree video is the nature of the experience. While VR and AR/MR are more akin to video games or simulations, 360-degree video offers a more mediated experience that can allow for a narrative to develop in a manner more similar to movies than to games. Most 360-degree video content is “on rails”, meaning that the user can look around, but not move within the reality inside the goggles. In this way, it’s more similar to being “inside” a movie and being able to look in any direction, while being carried through the narrative in a very purposeful and controlled manner.
The promise all of these technologies hold is that of bringing the viewer closer to the content and allowing them to experience it in a new way. As filmmakers and storytellers, DHD Films has already invested heavily in exploring these technologies and how we can leverage them to better serve our stories. We have yet to see the full extent to which VR, AR/MR or 360-degree video will penetrate the consumer market, but if the user response throughout SXSW is any indication, consumers are both ready and eager to partake in this next stage of experiential video. Films like “Ready Player One” are helping to normalize the concept of these new technologies, and we can’t wait to see them deployed not only as props in a movie, but as a means by which to experience truly immersive narrative filmmaking.
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