Over the past year, we've seen the democratisation of the 360 camera. Devices like the Samsung Gear 360 and Insta 360 have made it easier than ever for regular people to shoot 360-degree videos. YouTube and Facebook support has made it easier than ever to share those videos. But we've also seen the death of the Nokia OZO, the high end 360 camera for professionals.
User created content is fun and great, but the stuff that really pushes platforms and mediums to the next level is great high-end content. It's the stuff you can't wait to tell your friends about, piquing their interest and getting them to invest in an HTC Vive or Daydream headset.
The $45,000 Nokia OZO 360 camera was the tool that professional filmmakers, movie studios and live broadcasters liked to use in an attempt to create the high-end shorts, docs and journalism that would make VR sing. It counted Warner Bros, Disney, and more amongst its users. Now it's gone, and there's a hole in the world of VR filmmaking. Can anything fill its shoes?
'Nothing like it'
Magnopus has been working on 360 video well before 360 video was even a thing. The LA based company, according to co-founder Ben Grossman, would have to custom mount a bunch of RED or GoPro cameras together and then find a way to edit all the video together. It was like a science project, Grossman explains to Wareable.
"In the early days you had to build a camera by yourself out of normal cameras, you'd have to kind of 3D print a frame or glue it together," he says. "That was not even 25% of the battle. Once you had a camera you had to take all the imagery off the cameras, you had to stitch into all these different versions, you had to edit it, you had to colour correct it, you had to sound mix it." Traditional cameras for traditional video experiences obviously weren't designed for that workflow, making putting together 360 videos a terrible experience.
And then Grossman received a call from Guido Voltolina, Nokia's head of VR capture. Voltolina wanted to show Grossman and the rest of the team at Magnopus something new. When they arrived at the restaurant they were meeting at, Voltolina was lugging around a black pelican case. He set it on the table and popped it open. Inside was what Grossman described as a "beautiful, pristinely manufactured real-world 360 camera." It was the Nokia OZO.
360 video is the town you stop at to refuel on the way to your final destination.
That was the OZO's most obvious advantage. It was a single device that was much easier to use and place compared to other rigs, which were nothing more than glued-together cameras. Filmmaker Hal Kirkland, for example, recalls how he was able to hang the camera up on a rig and move it over a street in between two rooms for a One Direction music video. Kirkland explained that he had used other 360 camera rigs, like GoPro's and Google Jump, but the OZO was the one that worked best.
He no longer had to set up 12 different monitors for 12 different cameras to try to piece together what he was shooting. All of the OZO's lenses were a part of a singular camera that fed into the true revolution of Nokia's 360 camera: The workflow.
On a traditional shoot, with regular cameras, the footage is fed into a monitor that the director watches to see, in real time, what the shot is going to mostly look like. This allows filmmakers to adjust and try new things if what they originally envisioned isn't going to work. This was much more difficult with early 360 video, because you either had to do mental gymnastics to imagine what it would look like or wait.
Filmmaker Josema Roig, who used the OZO to make The Argos File, says other 360 video cameras took about 45 minutes to get out all the imagery, stitch it together and then check to see what the shot was like, all while cast and crew were waiting. "You cannot have a hundred people standing by for 45 minutes to get an idea of the shot," he says.
Wasting all that time on a film set, when you have people choreographing their actions and working out timing and needing to know what to stand and where and when to move on what cue is a cardinal sin. Melissa Painter, the filmmaker behind Heroes: A Duet In Mixed Reality and creative director at MAP Design Lab, points out that on her project the OZO allowed her team to collaborate by seeing the results of what they were shooting in real time.
The OZO's live view feature let you connect a headset via tether and see where the stitching was taking place. This, according to Hal Kirkland, allowed them to better plan their action and know where to place the characters. That feature was actually born out of collaboration with filmmakers, with Kirkland and his team coming up with and suggesting ideas like a live view to Nokia, who developed it in a couple weeks and then let Kirkland try it out.
The secret to the OZO wasn't specs on a sheet or the best resolution, it was that Nokia understood that filmmaking is a collaborative art, and that the collaboration of filmmaking isn't just between actors, producers and directors, it's in the technology – and the people behind the technology – working to solve problems. Each filmmaker interviewed in this piece went out of their way to talk about how the OZO team was always on set, ready to explain how a certain feature worked or to take ideas back for development, like the live view feature. It's that collaboration, willingness to experiment and commitment to understanding that made the OZO the closest thing to the perfect 360 camera, Painter explains.
Even more than that, because Nokia was listening to filmmakers it understood that making high-end videos wasn't just about the camera itself, or even shooting and editing it together. It's about everything in between, too, from moving it to a computer to allowing software to perfect the footage and get it ready for prime time.
"A lot of people were talking at the time and saying 'oh yeah we're going to do [workflow]' but when you actually had conversations with them you could see ah they didn't really know how to do that, they were just saying they could do it," Grossman says. "But you could tell when talking to Nokia they had a very intimate understanding of what workflow really means. The secret in Hollywood is a camera's specifications are great, but the workflow of being able to use the material from that camera and get it into an entire production pipeline is half of the value itself. A lot of people forget that, but Nokia knew that from day one."
'360 video is dead, long live 360 video'
360 video is the town you stop at to refuel on the way to your final destination. There's nothing wrong with this town, it's perfectly nice and filled with great people, delicious food and hip culture, but it's not the town you're going to.
"360 video is just traditional video but you can look in every direction," Grossman says. "It's just a lens that's 360 degrees, but generally speaking it's still passive content. You stand there and look around, you can't do anything, you can't choose where to go, you can't interact with the characters. You're just an observer thats been put inside of a story and you're invisible and you have no interactivity."
That lack of interactivity is why Painter says she never thought 360 video was something that would be the end game for the medium. The OZO, she argues, was always the first step in a longer continuum of VR filmmaking. Users naturally want to move around in VR, and Painter says the bare minimum is to be able to choose your own vantage point. That's not really possible with 360 videos, which place you in the centre of the action, but you're not in the action yourself.
That's one reason why Magnopus started moving away from 360 videos. The company found that users would spend less time in a 360 video, maybe just a couple of minutes. However, Magnopus could take the same ideas presented in the 360 video and adapt it into a more immersive experience that allows users to interact with objects and characters. The studio found that users kept coming back, spending hours and trying new things.
This is possible because of new technologies like volumetric capture, which Microsoft has toyed with with its HoloCapture tech. The way it works is this: There's a set space that houses a whole bunch of cameras and lights designed to capture a person's physical performance. This performance can then be plopped into a world and users can interact with it as if they were in the same physical space.
What all these VR experiences are lacking is authenticity
The best example of this is Magnopus' Blade Runner 2049 experience for Oculus Rift. Instead of watching a scene from the film in 360 video, the company went and crafted a small narrative where users can step into Blade Runner 2049 and interact with motion captured performances. Those characters aren't digital creations by some artist, like in a video game, they're real people on a stage, captured by around 40 cameras.
This, more than anything else, seems to be the future of VR filmmaking. Performances captured and placed into a digital environment, where you're invited along for the ride. You're not a passive observer here, you're part of the production – a character playing his or her role in the story. In the short term, however, that story may veer off into the uncanny valley.
"What all these VR experiences are lacking is authenticity, and volumetric capture is the death of authenticity," Josema Roig says. "It looks perfect, it looks so real, but it's an actor surrounded by an array of 48 plus cameras plus green screen. Imagine how hard it is to act with one camera looking at you, then put 48."
Roig argues that the full technology for volumetric capture-based filmmaking isn't there. The motion capture of a person tends to look amazingly real, but then it's placed in an environment that's not up to that quality, which makes the whole thing look a bit off. Just look at the trailer below, where you can easily spot the differences between the real and crafted.
Instead of moving on to the next thing, Kirkland says creatives might need more time to dive into 360 video and figure out and learn the craft. One of things 360 videos suffer from, he says, is laziness. Putting the camera down and just recording stuff going on around it isn't good enough any more.
It's likely that 360 video is at the point in early film history where filmmakers simply shot things that moved, Roig says, like a train arriving at a station or people sneezing. Those were unique for a while, but filmmakers and technologists soon started to built on top of those short, simple clips. Decades later, modern filmmaking has turned into a complex beast. The Spielbergs, Kubricks and Coppolas of the 360 video world haven't yet arrived, Roig says, but that doesn't mean the style should be thrown away.
"360 was born dead because we know 360 video is not the real goal, it's not the real target, but its a necessary step, like silent cinema was necessary to go to cinema with sound," he says. "But you cannot separate them, you cannot be like 'because silent cinema is going to disappear it's not necessary right now.' No, it's really necessary because we need to push the envelope."
'A major debt'
Back in the old days, Painter says, filmmakers like George Méliès used to go off and experiment with their techniques and craft. They didn't have the weight of industries weighing on them, which is exactly what's happening in the realm of VR filmmaking. Entertainment companies have to look at potential markets before making an investment, as do the hardware vendors. Why invest a great deal if there aren't enough users to buy your content?
This is why Kirkland thinks the demand for 360 videos, and whatever comes next, will pick up once consumers get affordable headsets in their hands. And not just mobile headsets for a phone, but standalone VR headsets with across-the-board standards.
"The thing that traditional film has is that everyone's creating for the exact same platform," Kirkland says. "Everyone is making the rectangle for the rectangle. I think what this industry suffers from a little bit is that everyone has different headsets and those headsets are tied to a cellphone or a gaming platform and suddenly there's a lot of different ways to watch things. That means there's less content on each one of those platforms."
The OZO was a north star for other camera makers
It gets messier when you consider Grossman's explanation for why Nokia canned the OZO camera. Nokia, he argues, took a look at Facebook and Google, two massive companies encroaching on VR that make money on ads placed within and next to content. Nokia, on the other hand, is a hardware company with a shifting focus to health. It needed to upgrade the OZO with better sensors and lenses, but the company, he argues, might not have been able to justify the investment. Roig, who worked closely with Nokia, saw the writing on the wall.
"It was clear this year that they didn't want to spend money," he says. "They were not going to do any marketing stunts or fund any projects. And since that started happening it was like 'well, the future of the OZO – what would it be?'"
There won't be a future for the OZO, but there will be a legacy. The question is what kind of legacy it will be. VR filmmaking is losing a camera that was known for its workflow and versatility, a tool that allowed creatives to actually be creative and push what 360 video could and should be. As Roig explains it, this could scare the hell out of future engineers working on the problems of VR filmmaking and, more importantly, "edgy investors" who might not want to invest in these tools if Nokia couldn't figure it out. "It's not good news, it's really not good news for the industry."
On the other hand, as Grossman says, the OZO was a north star for other camera manufacturers. It showed the industry what was possible. "The industry owes a major debt to all of the people on the Nokia OZO team because they really demonstrated to all the other camera manufacturers that it is possible to make a consistent, easy user-centric workflow and that all of these things – that nobody else was doing at the time – were essential. They really raised the bar for everybody and I think that caused a lot of other camera manufacturers to step up their game."
At the moVRies
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- Our picks from Tribeca Film Festival 2017Sci-fi mindtrips & infant battle royales & elephant protectors & apocalyptic invasions