What’s Next after Cardboard Crash, VR Cinema? Talking to NFB’s Vincent McCurley

11 Jan

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By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

Virtual Reality (VR) is making further steps into the mainstream this year, and Vincent McCurley, Creative Technologist of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), knows how to make an experience in this field matter. His work, Cardboard Crash, is only a beginning in exploring what this technology can do. It is not always about smoke and mirrors. The applications range from use in drawing in the third dimension to medical imaging — one day, doctors might be able to perform emergency surgery in the virtual space because they can’t get to the hospital in time. While its use in the entertainment forefront is getting the most attention at shows like the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show which wrapped last weekend and at film festivals there’s more to this technology than meets the eye.

“It’s really about putting the audience in a position where they feel like they’re actually in that world. My program came out of that core idea of what makes VR different than any other medium,” said McCurley.

Ultimately, VR is the computer mediation of our senses. A truly immersive experience makes what’s presented by wearing that headset completely indistinguishable from reality to an image on a computer. A suspension of disbelief is required and a willingness to be entertained (or shocked) by the computer program creates part of the fun. For this particular application, this software engineer and filmmaker created, it explores a topic that academia is interested in. It’s a subject worth exploring when considering Google wants to put self-driving cars on the market. The future is looking dangerous.

In Cardboard Crash, the viewer is put into a self-driving car that’s in motion and there’s a cardboard (cartoon) character enjoying the ride. However, there’s an incident further down the road and inevitably the artificial intelligence has to make a decision which can affect the riders …

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“We (the app) then pull them (the viewer) out of the car and onto the network, where we are able to show them additional info from the lighthouse or drone’s point of view in order to get more information about the potential consequences of the collision. We put them back in the car [to experience the results]. At that point, I’m hoping some people realize that they have never been in the car; they are the algorithm that is supposed to be making the decisions for the scenario.”

What’s really important in making this software demo work is that the element of assumption and surprise hidden in the experience. At first glance, people trying Cardboard Crash for the first time may not be aware of the purpose of the app. Once the initial shock is gone, the replay factor comes in seeing how the other remaining options will play out. This program has the potential to be expanded upon, and McCurley is working with philosophy professors to see where it can go.

“It’s something I have given a lot of thought of, if I had the time to be able to develop it, I definitely like to make some additional scenarios,” revealed McCurley. “I’m working with a bunch of ethics researchers from the University of British Columbia, Ottawa and down in the States. They’re very keen on seeing see how we can use VR to get research data into their ethics studies using Cardboard Crash as a platform. They have a bunch of scenarios/dilemmas that should be interesting to explore.”

Only time will tell if this program will see a version 2.0

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This app was released late January last year, and if there are any plans to expand it, McCurley loves to work on it, but realistically, he said, “It depends on whether the NFB thinks that there’s an Act II.”

This content creator said that the story would have to change to accommodate an expansion of the universe. For instance, instead of a program (the audience) making a choice to how the fate of one vehicle plays out, there’s a control centre where the program is managed. Instead of artificial intelligence operating these vehicles, there are drone pilots operating them and they have to make frequent tough decisions which decide the fate of the riders.

In the meantime, he is working on a VR film. There’s a lot of different challenges behind making this next project work. One problem is whether it should be a cinematic (Hollywood-style) product or not. This filmmaker thinks the more he tries to move in that direction, the worse off it’s going to be. He has to examine the medium’s strengths and weaknesses and use it to his advantage based on his understanding of it.

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McCurley has looked at other virtual reality films. Allumette is a story of a little girl selling matches, and Henry the Hedgehog is a story of an animal celebrating his birthday. In both products, the story plays out in front of you and you can navigate around the world. He described the former as wandering around a diorama where you have a god-like presence. You can’t affect anything but can watch as the story unfolds.

“I was able to look around the cloud, into the buildings, underneath things and have these objects fly around my head. I think the agency thing [giving the viewer the power of god to affect the story] is that you either give the audience full control within the experience or none at all,” said this filmmaker.

“In one point of the experience in Hedgehog, the protagonist acknowledges you are in the room with him — What the heck?” exclaimed McCurley.

“If that story had played out without breaking the fourth wall, I think it would have been fine.”

Moving from developer to filmmaker has this programmer thinking differently. He believes VR is at a point where it’s good enough for creating a lot of experiences for owners of the headset — be it with the Oculus, Vive or Cardboard (now Daydream) — to enjoy. It’s not photo-real but it offers enough room for content creators to have a lot of creative possibilities to play with and explore. While not everyone is able to afford the hardware to experience VR firsthand, thankfully there are opportunities at trade shows, film festivals and specialized centres to experience it on a scale that devices, like the Sony Playstation VR can not offer. That’s to move around in it while in a warehouse. The best example is the Ghostbusters VR experience at Madame Tussauds in New York.

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In order for mainstream acceptance, McCurley believes everyone is waiting to see how Apple Inc. will get their feet wet in this medium. Other challenges include realizing what a virtual reality film is all about. Some people say 360-degree video is not VR but others say it is. The debate is ongoing, and there’s also the question of whether this technology will always depend on people wearing headsets or not, Futurists can predict how it may look in the future. Miniaturisation will no doubt happen and the cost will one day come down; investing in it now will set the curious back by about $1200.

Kevin Smith in Unlocked, The World of Games episode eight postulated a future where nanotechnology (in the form of a pill) will give folks that experience since it will be a direct neural link for a fully immersive experience. But as his best buddy, Jason Mewes explained, there’s a chance that once you go in, you will not want to come out. It’s like bad medicine. In McCurley words, “If Second Life or World of Warcraft has taught us anything, people will spend more time in virtual worlds than they will in the real world if given the choice.”

The thought is scary and this new medium will have ramifications down the road. For now, the technology is in its infancy. 2017 marks its development into the toddler stage but as select film festivals around the world are exploring its storytelling potential, thankfully most artists realize where it presently stands.

“Cinema will not go away as an art form and VR will not replace it. They can co-exist,” said McCurley.

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