Crouching low amid the sparse vegetation of the African bush, a trio of lion cubs lollop towards me. Our eyes meet. Branches crack. It’s hot, bright and as the evening sun beats down, I spin around to find myself completely alone. Bathed in a golden light, the cubs come within a few centimetres, their already-giant paws crunching through the long grass and off into the distance.
Seconds later, the C-shaped curve of Rio’s Copacabana reveals itself from a rooftop swimming pool 16 floors up. It’s a cloudless day, and Sugarloaf Mountain is visible at the mouth of Guanabara Bay far in the distance. Then I’m in the middle of a crowd of partygoers dancing the samba in a favela, drinks raised aloft, before riding a thermal, bird-like, high above Ipanema beach on a paraglider, able to gaze up, down and all around as seemingly miniature cars and office blocks the size of Lego bricks zip by hundreds of feet below. All I can hear is the whistle of the wind in my ears.
If all this sounds unrealistic, that’s because it is. Indeed, it’s rather a let-down to find myself still perched in my south London sitting room when I leave the virtual-reality (VR) world. In VR – the much-hyped, much-talked-about and certainly much-invested-in new storytelling format – the impossible is seemingly made possible.
Mind-blowing and incredibly lucrative (more on which later), if 2016 has had one big tech buzz-phrase, it’s VR. The promise is great: simply by strapping on a headset that looks not dissimilar to a pair of skiing goggles, viewers can be instantly transported to another place or time. Want to be on the front row at a fashion show? No problem. Balenciaga’s a/w ’16 show (the first masterminded by change-maker Demna Gvasalia) was broadcast in virtual reality, meaning anyone with a headset could take a seat. Meanwhile, both Raf Simons (in his final show for Dior) and Hussein Chalayan have released 360-degree videos of their shows – and Dior has launched its own VR headset, Dior Eyes. As Chalayan told Dazed magazine earlier this year.
I’m excited about VR because it gives the viewer an experience removed from both space and time.
Whether the medium will revolutionise the fashion industry in the same way that online retail has remained to be seen, but that’s certainly the aim. As well as making luxury more accessible than ever (how many people have the opportunity to sit front row at a Paris show without the aid of VR?), it has cost-cutting potential. Designers can use it to bring sketches to life, providing an immersive 360-degree look at pieces pre-production. Virtual-reality development company Trillenium is using the technology to create a “virtual shop” for its backer Asos, which will enable shoppers to wander “stores” in cyberspace. VR mirrors – long talked about – are coming to fruition, too.
The secret to all this is the screen inside a VR headset that plays videos recorded panoramically. These are made using a special rig of cameras that film in several different directions at the same time. Each recording is then “stitched” together by a computer to make a spherical picture which, when viewed through a headset, provides an immersive experience, altering the perspective of the video to mimic your body’s movements.
“You have some of the biggest companies in the world – Google and Facebook – risking their reputations, and their capital, to make virtual reality the future medium for all of us,” says Jason Farkas, vice president of premium content video for CNN, who spearheads the network’s rapidly growing stream of immersive content, including live VR videos from breaking news events such as the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks. “The leaders of those companies are willing to throw a lot of money into the technology.”
Indeed they are because virtual reality has come a long way from its computer-gaming roots.
It’s now seriously big business. Facebook bought premium VR headset manufacturer Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion and, according to the website TechCrunch, more than $1.2 billion was invested in VR technology in the first three months of 2016. Adweek quotes other research predicting that more than 52 million virtual-reality headsets will be sold in America by 2020, and global search queries on Google increased fourfold over the past year. Last November, The New York Times gave away one million of Google’s “Cardboard” viewing headsets to its subscribers, which could be used alongside a smartphone and the paper’s dedicated app to access exclusive VR stories. Similarly, the BBC screened the Rio Olympics earlier this year in VR.
If things continue on this trajectory, advocates claim immersive experiences will become the default way we consume everything from news to films. Acclaimed actor and director Jon Favreau has worked on VR projects with Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. And Hollywood filmmaker Robert Stromberg, who has won Academy Awards for his work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, is also the co-founder of Los Angeles-based studio the Virtual Reality Company, which has Steven Spielberg as an adviser.
“VR is a whole new medium that has the potential to change the world,” says Stromberg. “As a viewer, you can create a narrative story and become either a part of that storyline or observe in a way that you’ve never been able to before… It’s like watching a play. The viewer has the option to choose where they want to look and what they want to see.”
It’s making waves in culture, too. The National Theatre has a virtual-reality studio, and last year the Barbican held a VR-based exhibition. But it’s Björk who is trailblazing the medium as an art form (her VR exhibition was at Somerset House in September). Long hailed as a pioneer in music videos, she last year released “Stonemilker”, a private performance of a track from her Vulnicura album. Shot on location on a remote, windswept Icelandic beach, the video is viewable in full 360-degree VR, providing a virtual one-to-one recital.
“One of the strengths of virtual reality is that it has a tremendous impact on the viewer,” says Farkas. “I don’t think anything can rival the intimacy and the closeness you feel to a story when you are viewing it in this way. The memories you form of being in virtual reality make a deeper, more permanent and more emotional impact than with other media.”
Alejandra Quesada, a producer at the Virtual Reality Company, believes VR connects with women more profoundly than with men. “VR seems to heighten women’s senses, their intuition,” she says. “Guys love VR, but there’s a certain sense of wonderment I’ve seen in every woman who’s experienced it.”
VR has revolutionised medicine, with surgeons using it to visualise operations – such as open-heart surgery – before a patient goes into the theatre. “Cedars-Sinai hospital here in Los Angeles is working a lot with VR, and many hospitals are integrating it,” says Quesada. “There’s research into stroke recovery using the headsets to aid physical therapy. It’s also been shown to help people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, phobias and seasonal affective disorder.”
Robert Stromberg goes one step further. “This will be how we will socialise in the future,” he tells me from LA. “This phone call wouldn’t need to happen; we would both choose a place and time, put our headsets on and meet in a virtual space to talk.”
It’s the potential for education that Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus, says he is most excited about. “Virtual field trips to museums are already possible, but it will soon be feasible for a class of kids to put on headsets and visit the moon or the Colosseum,” he says. “This is truly hands-on learning.”
But could it put an end to plane travel? Stromberg says that when people start having meetings in VR, it will be on the cards. “You will have that option… It will not only potentially save time, but can also give people a chance to do things and experience places they would never have thought possible in their lifetime.”
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