I stopped by the flagship Samsung showcase in NYC again this weekend.
I specifically wanted to see an episode of Gone, which has been hyped as an example of storytelling in VR.
It has a gimmick:
Selecting a hotspot invokes a teleportation effect, like this:
The Samsung showcase is not the best place for audio. It’s noisy and even with headphones and Volume set to max, it’s difficult to hear everything. I’m not exactly sure how much there was to hear, though. The scant dialogue I could hear seemed rather ordinary.
I was interested to see how a story is told in VR.
I came away with several problems:
1) The Height Problem. I was surprised to see a crane shot in the opening. Suddenly I was floating in the air looking down on an angled shot of a street. Height is a strange thing in VR. It’s not a factor in TV or movies because we’ve become accustomed to camera angles — plus we don’t get the sensation of being inside the action. I was never comfortable with my “height” in Gone. I couldn’t figure out, in the main story, how “tall” I was or if I was sitting or standing or floating. In all VR I’ve seen so far, I’ve never had the sensation that the “bottom” — be it a chair or floor or other solid surface — was the correct distance from my eyes.
2) The Attention Problem. I wound up missing the opening writing/directing credit because it was off to the side from where I was looking. That should never happen.
3) The Movement Problem. I was surprised to see the camera move at one point. That caused me to look around to find a seam — which I did, as a plane of static gravel traveled over “live” gravel. That also made me wonder about possible camera shadows.
4) The Teleportation Problem. Well, it’s a neat hack but …
5) The WTF Is This? Problem. At the end of Gone, I was told there were nine clues hidden in that episode. Huh? What? I never saw more than two hotspots. Looking for and clicking on hotspots made this a strange hybrid of Choose Your Own Adventure game and thin story (not much really happens in this opening episode other than the kid disappearing). I’m not sure how many people interested in a story want to bother searching for and clicking on hotspots. I really don’t want to. (In fact, I very, very rarely even go to websites for TV series that offer extra material. I just want to see the episode, leave me alone after that, I don’t want to do work and wade through clues and shit.) And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure what’s going on during a teleport. Are we watching something happening live or something temporally divorced from the action on the “main stage”? Is it a “Meanwhile…” or “A few Minutes Before That…”?
6) The Scene Cutting Problem. I was a bit amused to see that they faded into and out of black to change shots. I thought of that as well for cuts, before seeing this, and I wondered if it would even work. Well, I guess it does but they seem to make the transition too long for my taste. I understand why it has to be done. To some people, VR will be absolutely new and they haven’t become accustomed to it. By now, I’m acclimated and haven’t experienced “VR eyes” or any other after-effects from my earlier viewings.
7) The Length Problem. I couldn’t help thinking about the original Forbrydelsen afterwards. Both this and Gone are about missing girls. The main difference is that after seeing the first episode of Forbrydelsen, I wanted to see the next one. I have no similar compulsion to see more of Gone other than to examine it forensically. It didn’t create an emotional commitment in me. As Sam Macaroni stated, one minute of 4K 3D 360 VR is over one hundred gigabytes in size. When VR gets to 4K screens — and it will, probably sooner than anyone expects (and no, I have no inside information on this point, just a gut feeling) — something the length of Forbrydelsen would create a file that’s half a terabyte. How the hell will the world deal with that? Content Delivery Networks will have meltdowns. Anyway, without criticizing the script or anything else, let me just say that I thought there wasn’t enough here to grab me. Length is a problem for any VR that wants to tell a story beyond something that’s basically a cartoon or cartoonish.
8) The Static Camera Problem. Yes, they moved the camera a very short distance at one point, but mostly everything is static camera. In this respect, we’re back in the days of The Biograph Company, with cameras standing at one spot on a tripod:
Biograph films before 1903 were mostly “actualities”, documentary film footage of actual persons, places and events, each film usually less than two minutes long, such as the one of the Empire State Express, which premiered on October 12, 1896 in New York City. The occasional narrative film, usually a comedy, was typically shot in one scene, with no editing.
And there’s yet to be a D.W. Griffith to pioneer the medium:
He helped establish many of the conventions of narrative film, including cross-cutting to show events occurring simultaneously in different places, the flashback, the fade-in/fade-out, the interposition of closeups within a scene, and a moderated acting style more suitable for film. Although Griffith did not invent these techniques, he made them a regular part of the film vocabulary.
But beyond no Griffith is the limitation of the technology itself. Stereoscopic video requires a certain distance from the lens to achieve a depth effect. Here’s a brief explanation:
In addition, Sam Macaroni confirms that a VR camera has to be at least four feet away from the object/subject being captured. Four feet might sound close up, but it really isn’t when considering types of lenses and their different viewing angles. Cameras don’t act like human eyes. And I’m not sure if lenses really differ from one VR camera to another in terms of their Field of View and other aspects. This isn’t something I’ve studied and, frankly, things like f-stops confuse me as much as cellphone frequencies. (It was just last week I encountered “global shutter.”)
9) The Flat Or 3D Problem. I’m not touching this yet except to point back to file sizes in number 7, above. But now I’m wondering if every story needs to be 3D. Maybe just being spherical will be enough for some things? And what does being spherical add to a story? (I also saw another short Cirque du Soleil VR, which was basically half spherical, with live action at the front backed by a CGI auditorium of vacant seats! Did that really need to even exist as VR beyond the 3D?) The fact that all of this is being led by technicians — and not artists — only makes matters worse. This is from Samsung’s Milk VR Content Spec guidelines:
Huh? What? Without even owning a phone and Google Cardboard I can think of reasons for mixing 2D and 3D. Yet technically it can’t happen? This is like Samsung pioneering film and saying monochrome footage can’t be mixed with color footage. It cuts off creative people at their knees. That really needs to be changed, period.
I started out about Gone and have spiderwebbed into bigger VR issues. Each VR is a seed that spouts new issues and questions — and frustrations!
Speaking of frustrations:
10) The Resolution Problem. This bugs me personally. None of you understand how much I’d like to see VR on a 4K screen. Current VR is just lower resolution than the monochrome broadcast TV I grew up with. I’ve already written about this more than once:
And I have to come back to it with Gone. Despite the two ladies seated “close” to me …
… their faces were obscured by the screen-door effect and I really couldn’t tell what they looked like or even distinguish facial expressions. Nor could I see a detail that matters, especially in a mystery: Their eyes and what they were looking at. For some people, that won’t matter. But, damn, it frustrated me. Which is why I’d like to see at least one 4K VR on a 4K screen, even if it’s just a damn brief clip. I’d like to see the difference in detail. And this leads to another point, a b point:
10b) The Pay Twice Problem. Yes, I’m looking into the future here. Let’s say Samsung surprises everyone Real Soon Now with a 4K VR headset (I can dream!). How is that going to affect customers who bought current VR from the Gear VR stores? Will they have to pay again for a higher-resolution VR? Will this be like books, where you pay once for hardcover and once for paperback? Like video, where you pay once for DVD and again for Blu-Ray? In those physical instances, people are paying for a different container. VR is containerless, a collection of electrons. How will Samsung — and others who are selling VR — handle that?
As much as I’d like to have a Samsung Gear VR, the required S7 phone is an expense I can’t currently handle and am not sure I even want to handle. I’d have to buy it unlocked, and that’s close to US$700 for me. So for now, I have to write about VR from a distance most readers here won’t have. I’ve probably raised issues that might have already been solved in other VRs. Feel free to lob explosive corrections at me in Comments.
And now the promo for Gone: