Alien_Covenant_VR_realism

Better, Faster, Cheaper…

..pick two, the saying goes. The fact is, you can actually pick all three for VR. Yet, you’d think VR hasn’t matured enough going by what’s being done in recent VR for PR pieces in Hollywood.

Almost all of the tentpole movies are doing purely CG VR ‘experiences’ to promote a film, in association with high profile sponsors donating GPUs, domain expertise, software and hard currency.

The VFX teams are of a high pedigree, doing work on today’s blockbuster films. But, at least two recent VR for PR pieces, have fallen short of expectations – according to me.

Before I get into critique, a standard disclaimer: This is a technical critique, and if you can’t stomach it (see what I did there) stop reading.

Let’s get on with it.

“I believe directors of the caliber of Ridley Scott are the ones who will deliver on Cinematic VR. It’s up to the ProdCos. and consultants involved to keep up and deliver on the vision.”

I’d recently reviewed Ghost in the Shell’s VR for PR offering, on Linkedin.

The review was of the GITS app version released on the GearVR, not the subsequent video rendered version that was uploaded to the Oculus video player. Some things noticed were:

  • The framerate was below acceptable standards for the GearVR and yet somehow it passed Oculus QC and was allowed on. There was the telltale black rectangular border that signalled low frame rate( Samsung S7, latest android OS)
  • The characters, especially the main character – Major – was low polygon and hardly an effort befitting a big budget VR production. See the video above and form your own opinion.

Now, we have Alien Covenant: In Utero, which quite frankly to me, is equally underwhelming and could have been much more.

Alien_Covenant_VR_depth_QC1

As a reminder, from a technical point of view – I’m looking at anomalies and shortcomings that contribute toward breaking immersion, such as the alien’s hand floating through what looks like an umbilical cord (put your 3D glasses on and see the image). The still frame doesn’t do justice to when seen in the video.

But, it’s no sense critiquing if you can’t offer solutions (or so I’ve been told by those who love free lunches), so:

In a VR experience, Realism is relative:

In VR, the more you can offer realism – in context – the better the immersion. That phrase, ‘in context’, is key. It means that if the VR world is say, the world of a hedgehog in the beautifully done piece, Henry by ex-Oculus Studio… then stylized content and CG like rendering would befit the world, as done in Henry. There’s no immersion breaking experience there, in fact you’re immersed in a fantasy world.

Now, in Alien Covenant: In Utero, these claims are made about the Alien Covenant VR project in a blog post on Technicolor’s site:

“VR crews were sent on location to take scans of the props and sets to create an authentic and high-quality VR experience.” and 

“We had a lot of conversations at the very beginning about what it would take to create a high-image quality VR experience. It definitely had to be a step above any experience that has been created before…”

“The two minute VR experience would have taken a single processor 50 years to render, but the task was completed in a few days by using thousands of processors in MPC’s cloud-based rendering farm.” (!?)

When I say Realism is relative, then, if the real world is being re-created in VR, the representation should have realism as near to the real-world as possible.

However, in my viewing of the VR video on the GearVR via the Oculus video app, it seems hardly any of the claims made in the blog post made it to the video VR experience.

  • The quality (rendered finish) of the “assets” looked like any standard Sci-fi room asset available on CG trading sites, and dare I say, some assets on the Unity asset-store look of a higher render quality when rendered in realtime via the Unity Engine. I’ll qualify this statement with a video clip later in this review.
  • The blood/placenta looked more like crude oil spill puddles than the organic retch inducing triggers that VR is capable of eliciting in a viewer.
  • If it’s not already an interactive version, then there’s no excuse for it not being – both, for the Oculus Rift and the GearVR. Yes, the GearVR too. The video version is just not good enough as a VR for PR piece.
  • I’d recommend textures created with Substance Designer be used if there is a true VR version in the works. Why? because the blood and gore can be animated – tendrils dripping blood placenta etc.. with little to no over head, depending on play-out platform. More realism if people have their face so low to the carpeted floor (we have the alien’s pov after all) 
  • I can’t imagine those were real scans of props and the set as used in the film – but I’d expect them to have been, and then baked for realtime rendering.

That’s a tall claim I made there, saying it should be an interactive experience even on the GearVR… or is it?

The video above is from a VR for PR piece I’m planning for an upcoming narrative VR film. It’s a direct video capture from the GearVR, running the scene in real-time, under the Unity Game Engine. Let me break that down:

  • It’s not pre-rendered video from a game engine – The video above is output captured by a Samsung S7, while simultaneously rendering the scene in real time on the same phone, in stereoscopic 360 via the Unity Game Engine.
  • This is the level of experience I’d have expected from Ghost in the Shell and Alien Covenant: In Utero.
  • As you look through the video notice the subtleties that add to realism (it’s at least twice as better in the realtime version) – The metallic feel of the floor, the bumps on the glass covers of the pods.
  • This is running at the full recommended 60fps on a GearVR.

If the above experience was built by one person (myself) using high quality assets from the Unity Asset Store, it fails me to understand why big budget productions such as GITS and Alien Covenant are such underwhelming VR for PR experiences, and contain poor stereo composition – depth, scale and overall scene blocking for VR.

Credit where due: BahuBhali – Good VR for PR

If a purely CG version of a VR for PR experience is being planned for tentpole films, then take a leaf from what the (South)Indian film Baahubali did for their blockbuster.

Baahubali the VR experience is what interactive VR for PR in films can be… and then some.

What I’d like to see from Hollywood VR for PR campaigns is in fact far better; Hybrid worlds, combining movie assets, green screened (if relevant) actors in the VR re-creation, and giving the audience some level of “agency” within the world. Not these seemingly fast and dirty VR experiences.

I’m hoping Ready Player One the VR experience, lives up to expectations.