Roland Emmerich doesn’t want to direct a virtual-reality experience for you. He wants you to direct VR for everybody.
“I’m too much of a dictator” to shoot in the immersive format, the “Independence Day” director said during an interview and demo last week. VR lets viewers decide where their attention should be. “I want to decide where the camera is,” he said.
So unlike most of his Hollywood brethren, who are venturing into virtual reality by shooting narrative VR experiences, Emmerich is going the route of a startup co-founder, with a mashup of live-streaming, VR and a social network. And as the explosions in his films might suggest, he doesn’t go small: The endgame of his VR company, Vrenetic, is to bring VR to the masses.
Good luck. Virtual reality, which uses headsets to make viewers feel transported into a different world, has been one of technology’s hot trends in the last three years, attracting huge investments by the likes of Facebook, Google, Sony and Samsung. But even those giants have run up against skimpy consumer traction compared with the hype.
And by tackling VR through live-streaming social interaction, Emmerich and his co-founder, movie producer Marco Weber, are going up against some of those heavy hitters at their own game.
Vrenetic’s first foray will be Vresh, a combination of live-streaming social app, plastic VR glasses and 360-degree video camera that attaches to your phone. It takes elements of Google’s Cardboard VR viewer and Twitter’s Periscope live-streaming service and mixes them with some augmented reality too, a la Snapchat’s Lenses.
Founded less than a year ago, Vrenetic (pronounced like “frenetic,” but with a “v”) plans to release Vresh (pronounced like “fresh,” but with … you get the idea) to the public in March, after beta tests this year. Its initial run will be 5,000 units of its glasses. Vrenetic plans for the app and the glasses to both be free, and it hopes to build its own 360-degree camera as well.
The pair demoed an early version of the app and glasses last week to a small number of people.
The Vresh app has two roles. When paired with a 360-video camera, it lets you broadcast live to a single person, like a virtual-reality Skype, or to many, like a Periscope stream. When you slip your phone into a set of plastic VR glasses, the Vresh app also becomes a viewing platform to watch these live streams or prerecorded snippets of 360-degree video, which Emmerich and Weber call “capsules.”
The glasses, made of hard plastic, look like frosted-glass spectacles with antennas sticking out near your cheeks. These protrusions end with viselike blue pads, which grip a smartphone to hold it an inch or so from your face. The glasses stay on your head by temple arms that loop around your ears — you adjust the arms so the glasses are locked tightly from the back of your ears to the bridge of your nose.
While I stood in a stuffy, windowless WeWork conference room with the Vresh plastic glasses clamped to my face, I chatted in 360 degrees with Emmerich, who was in another room down the hall. One of his public-relations reps held the broadcasting phone, selfie style with her arm extended, while its 360-degree camera captured the entire lobby around it, Emmerich and all. He and I traded hellos — I could hear and see him, he could only hear me.
At this early, prerelease stage, Emmerich and Weber are the first to concede both the app and glasses are works in progress.
During my demo, my video exchange with Emmerich had a second or so delay, and it sometimes slipped down to a lower quality to handle the load of all 360 degrees of video in (almost) real time. Whenever I spoke to Emmerich, his live stream also rebroadcast me speaking over speakerphone, so everything I said was repeated back to me on the broadcast. The glasses felt heavy the first time I wore them, with the entire weight of an iPhone resting on the bridge of my nose. When I tried to take them off, their loops behind my ears got caught in my hair.
“Is it as good as an Oculus? No, but it’s good enough” for something manufactured for $6 or $7 and handed out free, Weber said.
To broadcast, the sliver of consumers who already have 360-degree cameras can use their own gear. But for the rest, Vrenetic aims to eventually release a $20 kit that will include a video-capture device of its own making, plus the glasses. For the demo, Emmerich and Weber broadcast with an Insta360 Nano, a $199 iPhone accessory already available on the market, as an example of how the app could work with existing cameras.
The co-founders are also developing augmented-reality style filters that would overlay on a livestream. In my demo, a simple animation showed an airplane that flew by slowly then lobbed a water balloon at my face. The goal is for features like that to be part of a publishing kit they want to enable users to create their own VR snippets.
The company is exploring making money on Vresh through corporate sponsorships, i.e. Coca-Cola wrapping its logo and colors around Vresh boxes that are handed out at a livestreamed event. Advertising on the app is another possibility.
Taking on Facebook and Google?
Most of the elements of Vresh already exist, often from powerful companies. Facebook as well as Google’s YouTube already offer 360-degree video livestreaming for their billions of users. Since 2014, Google’s Cardboard viewer has offered an ultracheap way to turn your phone into a rudimentary virtual-reality machine. And after an initial wave of hype, Snapchat’s Spectacles — glasses that capture video you can overlay with filters — seem to be a flop.
Asked about the possibility that one of those behemoths could snuff out Vresh like Twitter’s Periscope squashed independent livestreaming startup Meerkat in 2015, Emmerich and Weber brushed aside the threat.
“If that happens, it happens. What can we do?” Weber said. Those would-be competitors could just as well become partners, he said.
Emmerich said the company wants to quickly put its stake in the ground.
“I’m really excited by this, like I am with a film that is a new idea,” he said. “I had the feeling like [this in] 1995, when I had the idea that I should do this big alien invasion movie. I had a little bit the feeling that this doesn’t exist.”
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