When Parth Choksi visited Camp Nou - the home of football club FC Barcelona - a few years ago, he knew he was seeing something special. Alongside the dozens of trophies accumulated by the team over the decades was a virtual reality experience which thrust you into the pre-match atmosphere, from the locker room to walking up the steps onto the pitch side. Choksi, being a massive football fan, was enthralled.
He is now the co-founder and CMO of a virtual reality content firm, Meraki. Based in Mumbai and completely bootstrapped, it has already developed projects for Star Sports, Sunburn and IIT Bombay's Mood Indigo - three of the four co-founders are alumni of the technology university.
With the engineering pedigree and the hunger for film-making in place (two of the co-founders have either been involved in college film clubs or worked on a Grammy-winning album) Meraki's passion lies in creating short fiction. Choksi proudly talked about their efforts in the field, and mentioned one of their recent projects - a 4-minute short film involving contemporary dance - to explain the problems of working with, and in, VR. While the story follows just two characters, most of the film has multiple versions of them at any given time, creating challenges not just during production but also for viewers who were attracted in opposite directions.
As opposed to normal film projection, VR stories are told in 360 degrees, which means there's no guarantee that the audience is going to be looking at what you want them to see. Through visual cues and motion, Choksi noted, you can try to point the way. But unlike traditional film, or two-dimensional film as VR content makers tend to call it, you have no actual control over what the audience focuses on.
(Also see: Making Science Fiction Real With Virtual Reality)
But that's part and parcel of working with virtual reality. It's a completely different art form than the world has seen in ages. The language of traditional film has been written since the end of the nineteenth century. That's a long time, more so when you consider when VR film-making began. "We are trying to write the grammar of virtual reality," Choksi said.
Technical challenges and other teething troubles
VR content production then, is not just an uphill task, but one whose mere existence is still being questioned. The industry at large - the brands, broadcasters, advertisers and so on - aren't aware about the possibilities of virtual reality, he says, which makes it tough to convince them to even try it out. "They are apprehensive about spending money and not seeing returns," Choksi told Gadgets 360.
There are many reasons for this. VR remains in the early adoption phase so there's not much of an audience right now. Then there's the issue of low-cost VR headsets: while Google Cardboard has been an immense success in widening the user base, on mass-market phones it offers a low quality nausea-inducing experience that can actually be detrimental for story-telling.
And then there's the problem with video quality thanks to technical issues such as screen resolution (most phones still offer full-HD or lower displays, which look downright blocky when split into two displays) and bitrate (videos streamed over the Internet are heavily compressed, resulting in unviewable images).
This gets a bit better if you can afford a QHD phone or have the option to download an uncompressed version and watch it offline. Higher quality headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR or PC-based systems like the Oculus Rift, have a different issue: only a select few can afford to get their hands on them. How many people do you know that own a Samsung flagship smartphone or a high-end PC?
Choksi understands this, and said that there is a need for low-cost VR headsets, ones that would sit between Cardboard and the Gear VR. Google Daydream, announced last week at the company's developer conference, has the potential to provide just that. And meanwhile, he believes, big brands and entities will drive the apprehensions away. Take the case of HBO's fantasy epic series Game of Thrones, which promoted the start of its sixth season with a 360-degree take on its title sequence. "That really helped us," Choksi noted, explaining that it gave the companies who weren't willing the confidence they needed to give VR a go. "It acted as a kicking off point," he added. Since then, Meraki have been involved in various projects - most of them digital marketing, and some displays in malls and airports around the country.
Big firms are getting into the picture
Speaking of big corporations dipping their toes in VR, Prime Focus - a leading provider of media services such as VFX, stereo conversion and animation, behind films such as Captain America: Civil War and The Martian - is stepping into the world of VR-advertising in India by way of a joint venture with the parent company of James Cameron-founded VFX studio Digital Domain.
Namit Malhotra, the founder and CEO of Prime Focus, explained to Gadgets 360 why he thinks this is the right time for such a venture: their prior experience, India's standpoint as "a huge market and a huge influence" and how advertising is the low-hanging fruit in terms of VR content. Considering their history in the movie world, what about VR in film-making?
"Yeah absolutely, it's only a matter of time," Malhotra said. "The application of that becomes more and more real every day." He thinks Barco Escape - the multi-screen panoramic projection format - is a step towards that, aside from the availability of Gear VR, Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive. "We need to be sure audiences will be comfortable with sitting and watching a 90-minute movie in virtual reality," he adds.
Prime Focus brought digital intermediate processes to India's film industry, and also claims it was responsible for the world's first 2D to 3D film conversion. The company has always been at the forefront of new technology, Malhotra claimed, and with immense firepower on its side - Prime Focus' India presence and scale, in combination with expertise of Double Negative and Digital Domain - it's one of the few companies that could make VR happen on the big screen.
There are people coming at it from another angle as well. Architect couple Gautam and Tithi Tewari started Noida-based SmartVizX in early 2015 to rethink design visualisation in their field. When you're building a new home or an office, you're shown two-dimensional images on a page and have to agree to spend a fortune. The Tewaris wanted to create a better and more immersive process, one that wasn't static, passive and obsolete, Gautam Tewari said.
With the help of video gaming professionals who are now the core of the company, they realised that dream and dozens of projects. But now, it sees itself as a full-blown VR company, he noted, providing tools for anyone who wants to be involved with the new tech. Right now it might be primarily architecture, but SmartVizX recently set up a R&D lab in Bengaluru, and is expanding into video games and healthcare.
This is something that Choksi and his co-founders at Meraki are working towards as well. He told us about upcoming projects in the pharmaceutical world, and how they are having to build out their animation expertise. After all, it's the corporate projects and tie-ups that provide the funding for the film stuff they are so passionate about. The night before the interview, the team was up till 4am in the morning working on a shoot.
The constraints and unproven nature of virtual reality plays into both the making and viewing of it. All of their projects are in the single-digit minutes but take longer than a regular production, what with the inability to stand behind the camera (it's 360 degrees, so it sees everything) or even know what you're capturing (the six-camera GoPro rig they use cannot wirelessly transmit video).
But they - and everyone else involved - continue to persist because it's a booming field after all. Just look at the big bets being placed by Facebook and Oculus, Valve and HTC, Sony with PlayStation, and most recently, Google and its hardware partners.
Malhotra likes to compare VR's movement with that of 3D images. "3D was there for a long time [but it was] the next generation of 3D that became much more consumer-friendly," the Prime Focus founder said. "I think VR is going through the same phase. VR has existed for some time now; it's really at a point where it can be mass-marketed and it's much more consumer friendly to what was seen in the past."
That's a reasonable position to see from a company that's deeply invested in 3D movies, but a note of caution is needed here. Today, it's nearly impossible in many parts of the world to see the latest movies in 2D in cinemas; but 3D content on smaller screens is still far from the norm, and is now largely considered the past.
VR can be mass-market (Google Cardboard), but a lot can be said then of the experience. The Rifts and the Vives are out of reach for most, leaving the rest with sub-standard quality of VR, similar to what you get from 3D on a small screen. And the promises of Google Daydream remain to be seen.
People like Malhotra, Choksi, and the Tewaris are at the vanguard of a movement that's only getting started, and it's up to them to prove whether the medium's capabilities are going to help it reach a stature beyond that of 3D. For now, it's an open question.