When Facebook announced their $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift, Jaunt swears it took them by surprise. The small Silicon Valley company is working on the goal of creating cameras and audio recording equipment that lets anyone create a fully immersive, 360-degree virtual world. Jaunt's particular product goal, which still is in prototype mode, is a modular camera system designed for immersive films.
The prototype, which physically resembles a Lego set, is designed to let camera operators easily shoot in any direction imaginable and then work with a tech backend to stitch together footage from a whole lot of cameras into a seamless experience. Quickly.
After raising nearly $6.8 million in funding in early April, the company added three entertainment industry veterans to their board of directors. Tim Haley, a member of Netflix's board, joined, as did Dolby chairman Peter Gotcher and BskyB entertainment director Stuart Murphy.
CEO Jens Christensen told me that "the portable prototype we are working on shoots onto SD cards, typically with a two-hour limit. We need to build our own hardware, because it needs to be frame-synced—the company is currently in the process of fabricating our own camera modules and sound recorders."
Done right, Jaunt's product can be amazing. I sat down for a demo viewing several weeks ago of some of the company's sample videos in downtown Los Angeles. As I strapped on a prototype Oculus Rift headset (Jaunt's leadership notes that their movies can be viewed on any other VR headset, and indeed on tablets and smartphones as well), I was impressed. Various clips of a day in the park in San Francisco, of martial arts demonstrations, and of other outdoor events came through with full immersive video and all-engulfing audio. Instead of the polygons and almost-real-but-not-quite textures of other Oculus products I had used, this was real video.
But the highlight of the demo viewing was a horror-movie like scene where the viewer is trapped in a small environment with monsters. It worked quite well. "We see it as a new medium, something different that totally transports you compared to televisions and movies," Christensen told me. "It's something creative people will have to put their stamp on. It's a world of firsts for the next few years... we'll see the first truly immersive sci-fi movie and the first truly immersive adventure."
And Jaunt's pioneering work is just one part of a growing ecosystem of tech companies adopting Oculus Rift for all sorts of commercial purposes.
Condition One is a small San Francisco startup devoted to making movies for Oculus Rift. They are working in much the same sphere as Jaunt, and the company plans to release a movie for Oculus called Zero Point later this year. Judging by the trailer, it's an intriguing proof-of-concept for Oculus as a movie-watching platform.
A laboratory at the University of Southern California is exploring ways to turn the Oculus Rift and headsets like them into journalism devices. Late last year, I wrote about how a researcher at USC named Nonny de la Pena is working with Google, the Associated Press, and the Tribeca Film Institute to create 3-D, fully immersive journalism through virtual reality. Two fully-immersive videos her lab has put out so far place users in a food bank line where a bystander is going into diabetic shock, and at the U.S.-Mexico border when a man was beaten to death by Border Patrol officers.
Although both videos use computer-generated images rather than actual footage, they leverage original audio from the scene along with faithful re-creations of existing footage. The total effect puts the viewer there.
In another unique project, students at the Zurich University of the Arts leveraged Oculus to create a bird-flight simulator. Birdly is a self-described "installation which explores the experience of a bird in flight" where participants lay horizontally, put on an Oculus headset, and flap their arms to fly. They see what a bird sees, hear what a bird hears, and experience nick, roll, and heave through lying on a special table. Just to make things even more unique, the Birdly rig also emits realistic smells during flight time.
Ingrid Kopp, the director of digital initiatives for the Tribeca Film Institute (which has worked with makers of virtual reality films in the past), told Co.Labs that "The Oculus Rift presents exciting creative possibilities for filmmakers but it also throws up some really juicy challenges. How does editing change for example when you are now sculpting with both time and space?
This is something that struck me when I watched the excerpt from a film called Rise at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Freeze frames take on a different quality when you can move through space while time stays still. There is also a very different relationship between the story and the audience. There are clearly technical challenges right now in terms of creating live-action experiences in the Rift but I am really excited and a little bit terrified about how VR will influence filmmaking. I will never, ever watch a horror film on the Rift. Full immersion has its limits for me."
The reason Facebook paid billions for Oculus wasn't just to poke Sony in the eye over Project Morpheus. Menlo Park sees a lot of future commercial potential in Oculus, its developer community, and the potential use cases for the virtual reality headset. Although Oculus Rift has a reputation as a gaming tool first and foremost, that isn't all it will be. Over the next few years, expect a lot more companies and organizations to start participating in Oculus's developer ecosystem.
[Image: Flickr user Mitch Altman]