There’s no question that virtual reality (VR) is a hot topic among visual creatives these days. But VR is a broad-brush term that can encompass a variety of different formats—everything from video games, to homemade videos captured by low-cost spherical cameras to more immersive productions using GoPro rigs.
Then, there’s the VR that Jaunt’s VP of Content Scott Broock says the company is pursuing: “cinematic VR.”
For Broock, delivering a “cinematic” VR experience means stepping beyond spherical videos and even beyond what the current GoPro rigs are delivering. “For us, there’s three components of effective VR,” Brooks says. “You need a 360-degree sphere, you need stereoscopic imagery where the left and right eyes are discrete and you have true depth, and you need as lifelike audio as possible—audio that changes direction as you [move] your head.”
While cinematic VR is in its infancy, it’s already attracting a lot of attention. Jaunt recently raised $65 million from firms like Disney and Evolution Media, to develop the format. Among the many things the company is doing with its capital is developing and refining technology to capture and create cinematic VR. The centerpiece of that effort is the ONE, Jaunt’s newest VR camera.
To understand the ONE, it helps to understand the limitations of GoPro-based VR rigs, says Koji Gardiner, Director of Hardware Engineering at Jaunt. “The GoPro mounts make a flat 360-degree video. The cameras aren’t synced out of the box and use rolling shutters which can leave artifacts.” Plus, he says, the ”image sensors are small” with mass-produced lenses that can have imperfections.
The ONE, by contrast, has an array of camera modules with a 1-inch sensor, custom-built lenses, a synchronized global shutter, and on-board image processing to ensure a seamless stitch regardless of motion throughout the frame. Finally, the camera delivers a 4K frame per eye at 60fps. A future model, due in 2016, is said to deliver 8K resolution per eye.
Despite its potentially intimidating and unorthodox appearance, the ONE has just two buttons—power and record. More control is afforded via a software app that you can access on a laptop. When connected to the ONE via USB, the app can change basic imaging parameters and preview the scene. Some settings, like shutter speed, need to be adjusted globally but others, like white balance, can be tweaked on a camera module-by-camera module basis.
“The creation of 3D stereoscopic VR is very tough so people do spheres with no depth,” Broock says. To achieve dimensionality, you need to do more than put a pair of cameras together, Broock adds. Instead, you need to create a common focal point. The ONE does this computationally, by remapping the photons captured by the ONE’s camera modules.
The camera doesn’t do all the work, however. Central to the Jaunt system is cloud-based processing. Files from the ONE are downloaded and organized on a laptop and then uploaded to Jaunt’s cloud server for processing and stitching. Audio captured by omnidirectional microphones can also be uploaded and mixed ambisonically, so audio has a specific location and direction during a viewer’s VR experience.
“Sound to us is just as important as the visual,” Broock says.
A user can then download an MP4 or ProRes file for the right and left eyes for further editing in standard NLEs like Avid and Premiere.
Despite the sophistication of the process, the final VR file doesn’t necessarily need a high-end VR headset to view. Jaunt’s VR content can be viewed on Google Cardboard-compatible headsets, in addition to Samsung’s Gear VR and others.
The Jaunt ONE camera isn’t for sale or available for rent. There are only 10 in circulation at the moment and while the company plans to increase that number in 2016, it’s going to be tough for the average filmmaker to get his or her hands on one. For now, the company tells us, they’re focused on getting the camera “into the hands of our strategic creative content partners.”
Indeed, for Jaunt, the ONE is simply a means to an end, not the end itself. Jaunt does not see itself as a camera company at all but a content company, Gardiner insists. “A better analogy would be HBO.”
It’s still early days for VR, both as an imaging technology and a medium for storytelling, and for Broock, it requires a whole new playbook. “VR is its own thing, it’s not a continuation of film or TV, and it’s not in competition with them.” It’s up to storytellers, he says, to find VR experiences that resonate.
(An earlier iteration of the ONE was used to film a Paul McCartney concert. According to Broock, the concert was a seminal moment for VR content production and a proving ground for Jaunt’s technology akin to Vincent Laforet’s “Reverie,” which ushered in the era of DSLR filmmaking.)