Would you strap on a VR headset for hours? Creators are betting on it
'Because the long-form content is getting better, I think there's more appetite for it,' director says
You're staring out at thousands of shrieking fans at Chicago's Soldier Field late Thursday night. Look up and a shower of colourful confetti starts falling around you. Look left and there's Coldplay's Chris Martin, sweaty and singing.
And it's all happening in your living room — that is, if you have a certain virtual reality headset.
Thursday night's Coldplay concert — being shown live in virtual reality via Samsung's Gear VR — is yet another high-profile example of virtual reality going long. A Coldplay concert, for example, typically clocks in at around two hours.
Sure, there's a chance you'll get sweaty and fog up the headset lenses. But content creators have gotten a lot more skilled with VR technology and storytelling, allowing for longer experiences.
Montreal VR studio Félix & Paul put out Miyubi at the end of July, described as the "world's first long-form scripted VR comedy," clocking in at almost 40 minutes. It tells the story from the point of view of a Japanese toy robot in the '80s.
"The biggest lesson for ourselves … is that 'Oh my God, you can do that," said Paul Raphael, Félix & Paul's co-founder and creative director. "We can probably even push it further into what we would call cinematic feature-length territory."
The movie, now available as a free download for Gear VR and Oculus Rift headsets, had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and has showcased at other festivals, including South by Southwest. Raphael said there was almost a 100 per cent completion rate — meaning basically everyone watched it until the end.
"This can be done."
Plagued by 'doom and gloom'
Anshel Sag, a San Diego-based VR analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy in Austin, brushes off all that "doom and gloom" — though he admits the negativity is affecting the industry. He encourages naysayers to try VR again (or in some cases, for the first time), since many improvements have been made over the past year — particularly in long-form content.
"Because the long-form content is getting better, I think there's more appetite for it," he said. "I think longer-form VR is going to become a standard form of content that is going to exist."
Sag said many people's experiences with VR have been short and only now is the length of VR narratives "getting longer and longer."
"I think part of it has to do with people's attention spans are getting longer in VR."
VR video games have been paving the way too, with some games (like Batman: Arkham VR) that you could play for hours.
Sag commends projects like Miyubi, but said there is still a way to go before long-form VR experiences can be moneymakers.
"I know the studios are really working towards that," he said. "I just don't think Hollywood is quite ready for it yet."
Flat content vs. immersive content
That's not to say studios should all rush to start making long-form VR.
Stefan Grambart, a Toronto VR director and writer, said creators have to make sure they have a story worthy of the extended runtime — a difficult task given the viewer can look at all 360 degrees at all times and it should all be interesting.
"The defining element that makes something a story to be told in VR is the sense of presence."
Content creators like Grambart and Raphael know only a "minute" number of people are currently watching what they make. But Raphael said he is making long-form content for future consumption, with the hope it will catch on.
"We can't control how quickly people are going to buy these headsets. What we can control is how good the content is, which may attract them to go and buy these headsets," he said.
"I can't know with any certainty when this medium will become widespread. But my feeling is whether it's in two, five, or 10 years, I can't imagine we're still going to be looking at flat content instead of immersive content."