ACM - Computers in Entertainment

I’m Not With Stupid

by Marty Perlmutter

Digital Hollywood has become a VR/AR festival. It’s a jolly scene in campus-like setting, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

At its last gathering, Digital Hollywood had 39 panels on Virtual Reality. This time there may have been more. The range of topics was mind-altering. The reality of the smattering of Scuba-mask VR displays was not.

To watch someone in a face-sucker gesture with controller in hand is somewhat amusing, but also elicits a feeling of pity. For me, wearing an Oculus evokes profound disappointment. Much of the content is 360 video which, though stitched seamlessly, is not stereoscopic and therefore lacks verisimilitude and impact. The animated material may be swell for games, but I’m not playing.

I ran into a HoloLens at the start of the gathering. It has some promise though it’s only slightly less silly looking than the face-sucker, resembling an optometrist’s rig or a lapidary’s visual gig. The HoloLens needs a dark room for impact. Its gestural control is more elegant than flailing hands of a Rift, Gear or Vive wearer, but still abberant and not rock-solid in control function.

Let me cut to the chase: VR isn’t ready for prime time.

In fact, VR isn’t ready for dime time. It’s going to be a commercial disappointment, with successful but not blowout deployments in games and porn, little or no acceptance in theme parks and public spaces, and next to zero acceptance in the consumer market.

The $2000 array of display hardware and dedicated computer needed for the Oculus experience is going to technically challenge and financially daunt even the staunchest early adopter. The near complete lack of suitable content will kill the beast in the cradle.

Let’s talk about content. We don’t even have a descriptive language for the user’s experience. There are words bandied about – “embodiment,” “agency,” “presence” – but there’s little understanding or agreement about what these mean. Most content producers are clueless about this nomenclature or how it will/should impact image-making. Enthusiasm isn’t a replacement for competence. And enthusiasm that runs ahead of competence “does not further,” to quote the I Ching.

Those who make VR product – and there are a few real ones (Kevin Althans and Ted Schilowitz among them) – are well aware that a cinematic “language” of VR production doesn’t exist yet. It’s unclear where to put the camera to keep it out of the shot. Ditto the lights. The semiotics of film – cuts, fades, tracking shots – are not transferable to immersive. Ergo, it’s tough to describe how to make the stuff. It may work in a known environment – a survival trek on Mars pursuant to the movie or for a short brand puff. But how do you tell a story in VR?

Let’s stay with that. What, precisely, IS a “story” or narrative in VR?

A story is by definition a tale of something that happened. Past tense; first this; then that. And as a result, this.

What the $%#&* does that have to do with live immersion in the Now?

What are the rules of storytelling in an altered, concurrent reality?

I can see how to tell the story of a Syrian refugee camp, to put a VR face-sucker-wearer in that place and make ‘em feel it. I can see how to help them enjoy a self-guided tour of Mars. I cannot for the life of me tell you how to do the Boy-meets-girl/Boy-loses-girl/Boy-gets-girl-back thing that’s the heart and soul of every movie or TV narrative you’ve ever seen.

But maybe you’re smarter than I am and can tell me how.

Ready player one. Explain.

I’m going to sit this out til someone gets a clue.