Roland Emmerich movies like Independence Day, 2012 and Stargate wowed audiences with immersive set pieces and explosive action. But while stepping through a wormhole sounds like a perfect concept for VR, Emmerich's new startup company VRenetic – pronounced "frenetic", and co-founded by fellow Hollywood producer Marco Weber – doesn't focus on producing cinematic VR films at all. Really, it's about making you the director.
Emmerich and Weber have created VResh ("fresh"), a VR app that works with a pair of plastic glasses to let users watch livestreamed, 360-degree VR content with any smartphone in the world. They can also edit, augment and publish streams to social media, and even directly connect with other smartphones for virtual conference calls. They claim this is the first VR app to offer "peer-to-peer VR livestreaming" with synchronous two-way audio, and make it accessible to virtually all smartphone users.
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I visited Emmerich, Weber, and VRenetic Product Manager Eli Park in New York City to try out their new software demo, pick Emmerich's brain about the future of VR, and learn more about how they plan to improve VResh before its launch in early 2018.
Hardware with social VR in mind
VResh is device-agnostic, so anyone with an iPhone or Android smartphone and a VRenetic lens or 360-degree camera attachment will be able to livestream VR content, and any VR-enabled device will be able to receive it.
I spoke briefly with Weber and Park about the app before swapping my prescription glasses for a pair of lightweight plastic lenses, as shown above, with a smartphone attached. With this device, you get Cardboard-level VR, but unlike your usual VR experience you aren't stowed away inside a virtual void. As I opened up the VResh app and surveyed the interface, I could still see Weber and Park watching me, grinning, as I spun around. So there's a semi-AR element to it.
Unlike your usual VR experience you aren't stowed away inside a virtual void
Weber explained that keeping users from becoming too immersed in VR is a feature, not a bug, especially for their target audience: teenagers. Their teen focus group "had fun with VResh because it didn't isolate… they'd say, 'Hey, I'm still in the room, still speaking with my friends, as I experience this.'" They want VR to be something you can enjoy socially while out in the real world, not just indoors.
VRenetic purchases its glasses from Stimuli VR, which has already mass produced 5,000 glasses for its beta launch. The glasses don't exactly look secure, but the hinges at the end latch on to smartphones strongly enough that you can shake, spin, or flip them without losing your phone.
After meeting Stimuli's founder Roy Peer at a New York trade show and trying out his prototype, Emmerich and Weber decided that they shouldn't need to rely on users with Oculus Rifts or Google Cardboard to succeed, but would instead be able to send out cheap VR headsets to as many young, new VR users as possible.
"We didn't believe it would make sense to develop an application for a few hundred thousand people," Weber says. He and Emmerich argued that apart from "gamers", not enough young people will adopt VR unless they incorporate it into their everyday lives through free headsets and social media.
A FaceTime upgrade?
On the app's virtual dashboard, I could see a series of on-demand videos to choose from. Since the app is hands-free, I simply directed my gaze at one icon and watched a short video from the rooftop of a San Francisco museum. These icons will show videos from friends and social media feeds in the final app version.
Then I received a call from Roland Emmerich. I answered the call by moving my head, and my vision shifted from San Francisco to another office space elsewhere in the building. Without my glasses, things were fairly blurry, but I could still clearly see (and hear) the director, the VRenetic marketing team member holding the streaming device, and other people in the public space. On their end, they could only hear my voice.
"You put your phone on the table, with our lens, and it captures the whole room," Emmerich said. "So somebody conferences in, and they can turn to the person who speaks, as if they're sitting at the table." Working remotely and calling into meetings could become a much more dynamic, natural experience through their app – especially since their headset of choice doesn't block off the rest of the world.
A downside of relying on accessible hardware, of course, is the lack of VR horsepower. Their team claims users will only need "average cellular network data or Wi-Fi connectivity" to livestream or call others, but during the demo, I definitely experienced some latency issues. Lips didn't match words, and I could hear my own voice echoing back at me. And the video quality from their Insta360 nano camera didn't look the best.
Weber addressed these concerns, claiming that beyond the demo, their software is optimised for 4K and 360º 3D video, and that their proprietary smartphone lens adapter will greatly improve the image quality and minimise latency.
But they have no illusions about their ability to compete with high-end headsets like Oculus in streaming quality, until the base capabilities of smartphones continue to improve. "It would be absurd to say we're in competition with Facebook [Live] or anything like that, we're not crazy," Weber said, laughing. "We're a startup of two friends who had a good idea. We feel we can find our own spot as a new social media tool."
Emmerich: "Totally against" VR films
Emmerich and Weber head a team of 50 engineers and developers, based either in Kiev, Ukraine or West Hollywood, California. A very different atmosphere from the big budget Hollywood productions that both men have worked on in the past. When I first heard Emmerich was involved in a VR project, I assumed he would be heading some big budget VR tie-in to his latest film. Apparently, lots of other people in Hollywood made the same assumption.
VR films always ends up a little like an arcade game
Instead, when Emmerich tried out a VR experience of someone hang-gliding, he "saw it more immediately as a tool to bring people together".
"I was approached by a lot of people to come into their studios and check out VR," Emmerich said. "They wanted me to direct one of their VR experiences. But, as a director, I was not really interested." He claimed he wants "exact" control and "balance" for his films when it comes to where the viewer looks, and that he was "totally against" the very idea that viewers would choose where to look in his film for themselves.
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The Independence Day director isn't the only one who feels skeptical about cinema and VR. According to Emmerich, many other directors he has spoken to, including Academy Award winner Ang Lee, feel very strongly the same. Because VR films "always end up a little like an arcade game," they're "more an experience than a narrative." And he's skeptical that even Hollywood directors can make their money back on high-cost VR productions, until more people have adopted headsets and show they're willing to purchase content.
Getting as many pairs of VR glasses out to the public as possible was a constant refrain for both men during the interview. In one example, Weber imagined that "Red Bull says, 'I wanna order a 100,000 of these for the Coachella festival,' then give out the glasses for free. [Stimuli VR] will produce glasses with the Red Bull logo and style. Then people can download our app, and then start playing with it. It's a win-win."
So what next?
According to VRenetic's team, the key features of the app's software are all ready to launch. Now they're focusing on "tweaking and improving" cool new features and watching what their beta users do with the technology.
The app will launch with an "extensive publishing kit" of editing features, says Weber, including augmented reality animations and filters. This will allow users to put their own unique touches on their livestreams before publishing them.
Once your livestream is published, VResh will attach your video to a specific set of GPS coordinates. Then, if a friend goes to the same spot, they'll receive a notification that you streamed there and will be able to see their surroundings through your eyes and voice. Weber called these videos "capsules", and envisioned how friends could leave memory capsules behind during a vacation in Rome, only for friends to find these capsules during their own visits.
When I asked if the company planned on adding curated content for users to watch – like the demo of the San Francisco museum rooftop – Emmerich hesitantly suggested they might, but said they primarily wanted to "focus on products created by the user." They're excited to see what their target audience of 15–25-year-olds do with their technological playground, and what that audience will demand in future versions of the software.
Emmerich won't have much time for small VR films in future. He worked with Weber and the VRenetic team during a convenient off year between films, but will now be returning to work in Hollywood very soon. Weber, on the other hand, has decided to retire from Hollywood producing to focus on the app's success.
Anyone who is interested in trying out VRenetic's app before the official release date can sign up for the free beta program on their site. They'll mail you the glasses, and you can try out the technology for yourself.