In this, the latest in a series of posts ahead of MIPTV 2018’s unprecedented focus on immersive content, we speak to Alina Mikhaleva, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at VR studio Spherica.
MIPBlog: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what brought you into the VR/AR/immersive space?
Alina Mikhaleva: I’m a co-founder of the LA-based virtual reality studio, Spherica. My immersive journey started 4 years ago in Moscow. After over ten years in broadcast media, I was constantly looking for the next platforms, the next ways people will view and consume content. After some early experiments with AR back in 2012, I first saw 360 video and the cardboard-type VR headset. When I witnessed VR for the first time, I immediately felt that I had found something so deep and profound that it is going to change the way we think about content, create and engage with it, and I decided that VR was the next medium that I wanted to dive deeper into. Two years later, I’m thankful for this immersive journey and for the fact that I’ve been able to witness and be a part of the exciting development of this emerging industry. And even more, I’m thankful to have contributed to the development by solving some of the industry’s challenges. Thanks to the patent-pending stabilisation technology our studio has developed, we have virtually eliminated motion sickness in cinematic VR, opening the genre up to a vast array of options for content and filming methods.
> What are the biggest challenges VR producers and content creators are currently facing?
There are so many!
Hardware problems: VR headsets are not there yet. They don’t provide a good enough user experience, and it’s complicated to use them.
Bandwidth and screen resolution: right now, we’re producing content of a much higher quality than we’re able to share with the audience. We can shoot in stereo 8K, but it’s almost impossible to view it higher than 4K because streaming requires an enormous amount of data: we need 5G for that.
Budgets: it’s much more expansive to produce high-quality VR content than flat content. Just imagine that every frame in VR is a VFX frame.
Distribution is a challenge: As a content creator you need to navigate a complicated VR ecosystem, from mobile viewership via the “magic window” with Facebook360, YouTube360, Vimeo360 etc., to a fractured VR ecosystem with Oculus, Google Daydream, HTC and many other headsets all having their own stores.
But it’s not all challenges, believe me. The industry is progressing very fast, and in just two years, there’s been incredible progress. Every day, we’re getting closer to solving all of these problems, and it is bringing us one step closer to mass adoption. Let’s take post-production as an example. Today, our workflow is 100% based on the tools that didn’t exist a year ago. We started with stitching individual cameras and shooting with GoPros, and now we have cameras like Yi Halo that allow you to film in 8K 3D and the stitching is done in the cloud-based Jump ecosystem created by Google. It’s a game changer! Other incredible post-production tools like Mistika and Mocha VR allow us to do within hours in post what we used to do for days, if not weeks. At Spherica, we’ve also been constantly building and upgrading our production tools to give content creators the freedom to tell their 360 stories in a more engaging and powerful way with stabilised camera movement. VR is a completely new medium, and we had to reinvent a lot of tools like gimbals, cable cams and more, that have existed in traditional film for decades, but had to be built completely from scratch to work for filming in VR.
> How easy or difficult is it currently to sell immersive content? Do VR/AR entertainment companies have dedicated buyers yet?
It’s hard to sell ANY immersive content, but there is rapidly-growing demand for high-quality content in virtual reality. VR content is being licensed for Location-Based VR (LBVR) distribution through VR cinemas that are popping up in many cities around the world, especially in China. VR is front and centre at all the major film festivals. This year at Sundance there were several licensing deals announced, and one of the projects — the three-part VR series SPHERES with Darren Aronofsky as an executive producer — was purchased for $1.4 million. There is also growing competition between distribution apps and platforms for exclusive, high-quality content, and hopefully it will shortly lead to higher revenues for content creators. I’m being approached by different content platforms and VR cinemas wishing to license our original content series almost every week, and we’re in talks with many of them right now. So it’s happening, and I see a lot of opportunities for independent studios that early on invested in content creation and didn’t compromise the quality. Now is your time! And I’m looking forward to meeting even more international buyers and distributors here at MIPTV.
> Could you share some of the key learnings from your own VR projects?
Over the last two years we were lucky to work both on our in-house original content as well as over 20 VR projects for various clients and brands. All the projects were very different – from the Emmy-winning HBO Westworld VR experience to VR documentaries and corporate content for brands like Lexus. Our key learning? Break the rules. Back in 2015, when we first started to produce content, the first rule in cinematic VR was “don’t move the camera”. We never followed this rule. We did the opposite—we never saw VR as a boring static experience, and we went on to build our own tools to introduce stabilised camera movement. Two years on, it’s an industry standard that high-quality VR content has to have at least some camera movement, but for the majority of studios it’s still hard to achieve. Another rule – experiment. There are so many things that we haven’t tried yet, and that’s the most exciting thing about VR as a medium. But make sure that your experiments don’t create an uncomfortable experience for your viewer – never compromise the quality. Motion-sickness and low-quality footage have scared a lot of people away from VR in the very early days, and it’s still a problem. Many times I find myself educating clients about VR and trying to break their negative stigmas about the medium by showing them good content.
> What are the three most impressive VR/AR/immersive productions you have seen recently and why?
It’s hard to choose only three! I would go with one in each category depending on the level of interactivity: in terms of mobile VR, I was really impressed by Sun Ladies by Celine Tricard, which premiered at Sundance and SXSW. It’s a 360 documentary about women fighting ISIS — a great story that blends 360 video with beautiful animation done in Quill, a tool developed by Oculus. At Sundance I also really enjoyed Battlescar, an animated story about punk girls in NY produced by Atlas V. Among the higher end content, the hyper-reality experiences produced by The Void stand out. I recently tried their latest Star Wars installation, and it’s super fun! Full body tracking, social interaction with other players – highly recommended as the best location-based VR experience yet.
> Some may fear that VR will never catch on for widespread domestic use. Why do you think it’s here to stay?
It’s a very old argument made by people who mostly haven’t experienced VR. Or haven’t experienced proper VR. These technologies cannot be compared. 3D creates a better experience of the same flat content; it doesn’t change the way we think about content creation. VR is a completely different medium. Along with AR, MR, XR and all other R’s, VR is part of the huge shift to the next era of immersive computing. We will be gradually moving away from the screens of our mobile phones to a world where content is displayed around us. Everywhere. And VR is only a small part of this emerging ecosystem. But we need to start early in order to pioneer and learn the language of immersive storytelling. Because if mass adoption comes tomorrow, we’re not ready yet. We don’t have enough high-quality and engaging content to satisfy audiences’ needs and give the viewers a reason to come back to VR on a regular basis. In order for VR to take off, we need more good content, and it’s a great opportunity for brave, creative minds to take a risk and witness a huge return on their ideas.
Alina Mikhaleva speaks at the “True VR: Gearing up for an Interactive Watching Experience” panel at MIPTV, April 10. Full details here…