At the I/O 2016 keynote on May 18th, Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president of virtual reality, unveiled Daydream, a high-performance mobile VR platform intended as the successor to Cardboard. Beginning in fall of this year, the software will launch on next-gen smartphones running the Daydream-optimized Android N operating system. Bavor said the company’s intention was to build a virtual reality experience that’s user-friendly, “richly interactive,” and immersive.
Daydream has partnered with various networks and media services like HBO Now, Hulu, and Netflix in hopes of bringing quality, affordable movie and television experiences to VR. With more and more viewers cutting the cord and leaving cable behind, virtual reality’s been given a perfect opportunity to ride the wave of streaming media into the mainstream.
Jessica Brillhart, principal filmmaker for VR at Google, has spent the past seven years pushing her medium further and further into the 21st century, first as part of Google’s Creative Lab and then, most recently, at Google VR. She is the director of World Tour (2015), the first film to utilize the company’s 360-degree, 16-camera rig and Jump ecosystem. Before that, she worked as an editor at the VFX and production studio UVPhactory, where she once co-directed a music video for The Crystal Method (2009’s “Drown in the Now,” featuring Matisyahu).
Today, virtual reality has become Brillhart’s fascination—not because she ever set out to be a VR filmmaker, but because it’s such an uncharted wilderness. “I think the biggest thing has been the feasibility of making this stuff at all,” she says. “That was huge. And it goes beyond headsets. It’s cameras, it’s [development kits], it’s other folks who are making this stuff, who are coming together frequently and talking about it. Sharing what we’ve made, experiencing what folks are making, and then thinking about what else might be possible. Having an open dialogue about that.”
This shared pursuit of discovery, of pioneering techniques within an emergent art form, has brought together creators and artists from a number of once-separate industries to make sense of what is, essentially, a new mode of human experience.
“The insights that we talk about now, the language that’s emerging because of this accessibility—it’s not new, for the most part,” says Brillhart. It’s just that “filmmakers are struggling to come to terms with something that’s core to game design. Game designers are starting to ponder movement and energy that’s key to most performance artists. But the great part of this is that we’re talking to one another.”
“what happens when that atom explodes.”
When I ask her about the process of converting conventional, 2D television programming like HBO’s Game of Thrones to a virtual format, Brillhart tells me it’s all about leaving objectivity behind and moving toward new ways of “being present in that world, actively engaging with it mentally or even physically.” This presents a challenge, however, because the technology is still so new; it’s going to require an adjustment period while consumers get used to their headsets. There are certain considerations that have to be taken into account: What can virtual reality do that TV can’t? What is it about a 2D medium that makes for a satisfying entertainment experience? And at what point do those two elements overlap?
“I like thinking of film or television as an atom,” she says, with “VR being what happens when that atom explodes.” The components, from human perception to the craft of storytelling, remain the same, but engineering the whole of the experience becomes far more complex.
Though Brillhart has long been ready to experience Star Trek’s holodeck, she says the reality is that we’re more likely to see a lot of virtual home cinemas in the immediate future: large, two-dimensional screens within a simulated 3D space. “It’s what will help folks adapt to the format—but I think it’s a bit of a stepping stone. From a content perspective, we need to stop being so surface about experiences and start digging deeper into the medium.”
She describes a recent VR adaptation of the Game of Thrones opening titles sequence in which the viewer watches the credits from a 360-degree perspective, shuttled across the map of Westeros on a virtual dolly.
“When I saw it, I almost threw up on my desk. It’s moving you in this way where you’re trying to focus on something, and you can’t, because you’re moving somewhere else and your body can’t deal,” Brillhart explains. The beauty of the Game of Thrones intro, she says, is the artful imagery of the cities unfurling and taking shape upon the terrain as Ramin Djawadi’s thunderous main title theme evokes a sense of “conquest and glory.” She envisions a VR experience where the user sets foot on the ground, the kingdoms rising from the earth all around her.
One of Brillhart’s favorite virtual reality experiences is Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, winner of the Storyscapes Award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Adapted from the feature-length 2014 documentary of the same name, the interactive film uses binaural audio to map out events from the life of narrator John Hull, who began recording his thoughts on a tape recorder in 1983 when he found out he was going blind. He sought not to prevent this tragedy, but to understand it.
“The disability becomes a strength,” says Brillhart, “a gateway to something extremely beautiful. It’s really powerful stuff—this idea of reimagining the familiar. Particularly in exploring this idea of evolving perception and consciousness. This medium is rooted in how our brains engage with a space. It goes beyond the initial ‘I see this, I hear this,’ ” she adds. Even “something as simple as color. We don’t see the same red, generally, as the person next to us.”
“Come in, cousins,” says a woman on the television, an expansive smile on her face. “Be one of the family.”
In François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, Guy and Linda Montag sit side-by-side in front of the TV, Guy casting concerned glances at his wife as she grows increasingly involved in the excruciating minutiae of the program. Onscreen, two men are having a heated conversation—some gobbledygook about sleeping arrangements—when one of them pauses to break the fourth wall and address Linda directly: “What do you think, Linda?”
According to Brillhart, this sort of false audience participation has been in use for a while, now, from videogames to amusement park attractions. “But you don’t really affect anything,” she says. So the next step in interactivity will involve making sure that users do have an impact on the world and the characters, which creates an entirely separate set of challenges involving multi-user connectivity, persistent save data, security, and optimization. “And when you come back, does that world remember you were there before?” The future of digital spaces “lies in the validation of your existence, your presence having meaning.” Everybody wants that in reality. The question is, how can developers achieve this in the virtual realm?
“Might be a game designer, might be a theater director. Might very well be an engineer.”
Of course, I can’t help but ask: Will we see a lot of mainstream programming utilizing virtual reality photography in the foreseeable future? Is the Jump rig something a lot of creators will have access to?
“Absolutely.” In fact, Brillhart says, “I think we’ll start seeing a lot of episodic content, and with programs that are built from the ground up for VR instead of side notes for pre-existing content,” adding, that’s “the best part of all this. Cameras are starting to show themselves in a big way, and will continue to do so this year. We’re starting to see VR rigs at schools, universities, rental houses.” She tells me IMAX is one of several companies building their own version of the Jump camera ecosystem, and that, because of Google’s open-source philosophy, creators are more than happy to share knowledge and techniques with filmmakers interested in VR.
“I tend to think that our Spielberg is in another castle. Some of the great experiences may not come from the film and TV camp. Might be a game designer, might be a theater director. Might very well be an engineer. Or maybe it’ll be some kid somewhere who is maybe thinking about all these things and hasn’t even heard of VR,” says Brillhart.
“I can’t wait until she shows up. A bit Jedi-sounding, but I’m hopeful.”