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VENICE 2017 Industry

Exploring the potential of VR for the audiovisual industry at Venice


- VENICE 2017: Virtual reality was thrust into the spotlight at the European Film Forum held on the Lido

Exploring the potential of VR for the audiovisual industry at Venice
(l-r) Laia Pujol-Tost, Pompeu Fabra University; moderator Marjorie Paillon; Jip Samhoud, founder, Samhoud Media and the VR Cinema; and game developer Steven ter Heide (© N Satta)

The development of virtual reality was a hot topic at the European Film Forum in Venice. Michel Reilhac, VR director and head of Submarine Channel, gave an insight into the latest developments in the field. The new Jesus VR technology (see the news) will place the pixels of the image directly onto the retina of the viewer’s eye. “There is no screen any more,” stated Reilhac. Nevertheless, he doesn’t believe that VR is going to replace television, because TV and radio can be listened to while the consumer is doing something else, whereas VR requires one’s full attention. 

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The VR expert also programmed Venice’s new VR competition. A total of 22 VR projects have been installed in the 4,000 m2 exhibition hall located on Lazzaretto Vecchio island. “The main criterion for the selection was to have the best cross-section of artistic VR,” explained Reilhac. “As VR grows, it will start invading our lives with all kinds of applications and functions. It is very important to signal to the creatives that it is a medium that they can test, explore and develop as an artistic language. The entire focus of Venice VR is VR as a medium for artists and creators.” 

According to a prognosis by Goldman Sachs, VR has a market potential of US $80 billion. Jip Samhoud, founder of Samhoud Media and the VR Cinema, believes that VR is no longer a platform for tech geeks, because high-end creatives are also moving into it. “This is extremely important because it makes it ready for a mass audience to start watching it.” But it could still take five to ten years for the headsets to make it into homes, because the devices need to get better. “We are seeing that people are coming to location-based places to experience it.” The big studios are already planning to use VR for their marketing – for example, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is planning a VR version of Jurassic Park.

For Samhoud, it is crucial that quality content has its price. “We have to educate people that we won’t give them content for free. We need to create a window system and set certain standards. It is the same discussion as in the movie industry.” Furthermore, VR doesn’t only attract the Millennials: “It is accessible to big target groups – we also see old people in VR cinemas.”

Laia Pujol-Tost, senior researcher at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, remarked that what people like about VR is the fact that they can look around and even touch things. “We are constantly seeking new forms of communication so that we can bring cultural heritage closer to the audience,” said Pujol-Tost, who is beta-testing several VR projects. “The audience likes to travel into the past.” Independent game developer Steven ter Heide sees a huge responsibility for content creators in making sure that the experiences are of a minimum standard. “This is particularly the case in gaming, where we raise the bar even higher because we have to render all of the scenes.” 

Samhoud’s VR Cinema presents half-hour-long shows that include two or three projects. “There is a lack of children’s content in VR. Children are the ones who adapt to it quickly,” he stressed. The young entrepreneur also works with traditional cinemas such as those owned by Pathé to build VR cinemas. Meanwhile, IMAX and Cineplex are expanding their partnership by adding two auditoriums and an IMAX VR centre in Canada. “VR brings people back into the cinema,” says Stéphane Cardin, vice-president of the Canada Media Fund. Thanks to an innovation programme that offers $28.5 million in support, more than 200 companies are working with VR. Canada wants to co-develop VR projects and already has agreements in place with WallimageMedienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, the Danish Film Institute, and film funds in Colombia and New Zealand. On a global scale, various revenue models have been created for the financing of VR projects, such as Google’s Advr for advertising within VR content and HTC’s VR app subscription service, while Facebook plans to invest more than $3 million in the coming decade. 

“VR is the Tesla for audiovisuals,” opined Academy Award-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos (The Cove). “People change their behaviour based on what they feel. To create social change, people have to be emotionally connected.” With the VR documentary Clouds over Sidra, VR filmmaker Gabo Arora could even double fundraising figures for the United Nations. Meanwhile, British VR producer Catherine Allen pointed out that half of people are concerned about becoming addicted to VR. Giuseppe Abbamonte, director of media policy at the European Commission, foresees a risk that people might like their virtual friends even more than their real friends and will therefore become isolated.

In terms of technology, VR also has plenty of potential for further development. So far, the sound quality has not been able to keep up with the quality of the images. “They are using the same protocols as they did 20 years ago,” remarked Psihoyos, who recorded his latest film in DSD (Direct Stream Digital), with 2.8 MHz instead of 96,000 samples a second. “You can tell the difference; it is an emotional experience,” added the director. “We got used to trash. I am a big fan of getting cinema back on track and trying to make the sound keep pace with the visuals.”

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