Category Archives: Reviews

Oculus Quest Review Round-up

The Oculus Quest standalone VR headset will be available on May 21st. Many reviewers have already given their take on this exciting new device. See below for a collection of the latest reviews:

c|net: Facebook’s new VR headset it the best thing I’ve tried this year

Digital Trends: With the cord-free Quest, Oculus finally makes high-quality VR easy

Engadget: Oculus Quest review: VR freedom comes at a cost

Game Informer: Oculus Quest review: The next step for VR

GameSpot: Oculus Quest review: No PC? No problem

IGN: Oculus Quest review: A new reality

Mashable: Oculus Quest review: A new milestone for VR

PCMAG.COM: Oculus Quest Review and Rating

PIVIRAL: The Best VR Headset of 2019

Pocket-lint: A cable-free VR experience that’s surprisingly satisfying

RoadToVR: Oculus Quest Review: The First Great Standalone VR Headset

TechRadar: Oculus Quest review: An all-in-one virtual reality system for everyone

Tom’s Guide: Oculus Quest Hands-on: The New King of Mobile VR

Trusted Reviews: The Oculus Quest offers an exciting future for VR after shaking free its wired shackles

The Verge: Oculus Quest review: a great system with a frustrating compromise

Wareable: Goodbye wires, hello total freedom

WIRED: Oculus Quest review: VR has never felt this free

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Gymnasia VR Review: Unique and Creepy Stop-Motion Puppetry

Gymnasia, the latest project from Felix & Paul Studios, recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s also available for viewing at home on Oculus VR headsets, for the price of $4.99.

Clocking in at around six minutes, this short film is strange but engaging, presented in a gothic style that is creepy but not scary. Fans of Tim Burton will definitely enjoy the experience, but it’s worth seeing by anyone interested in cinematic VR and/or animated films.

Although there is not much of a plot, this VR experience is very atmospheric and effective. Set in an abandoned school gymnasium, creepy music plays while children’s shadows appear on the walls around you. Soon a basketball starts bouncing on its own, followed by many more of them, as their sounds reverberate from the walls. Eventually, you are introduced to a pair of animated dolls dressed in gothic outfits, who engage in a bizarre musical performance.

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As with any stop-motion projects, it’s clear that a lot of time and creative energy was spent on this project. The attention to detail of the miniatures is remarkable, and VR enables a close-up view of the artistry at work. I only wish it was longer, with more of a story. Hopefully there will be more to come in the future.

Here is a behind the scenes look at the making of this project:

More information is available at the Oculus Store:

Step into the stillness of an abandoned school and enter GYMNASIA, a place where the ghostly ephemera of a lost childhood await you. Recall the particular sights and sounds of a child’s world through the echoes of ball games, school lessons and choir recitals. GYMNASIA reanimates the memories of those forgotten days.

This ground-breaking, cinematic VR experience is the first collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada, Felix & Paul Studios and Clyde Henry Productions. Blending 3D 360-degree video, stop-motion, miniatures and CGI, GYMNASIA pushes the art of puppet animation into uncharted territory. The first VR experience to induce the elusive anxiety that occurs when the lines between what’s real and unreal are blurred beyond belief, GYMNASIA is a dark dream–unsettling and weirdly wonderful. Duration: 6 minutes 29 seconds.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Lucid VR Review: A moving tale of human connection

Lucid is a cinematic virtual reality story, currently available via VeeR on multiple platforms. It’s a short but effective tale about a young woman’s attempt to connect with her mother, who recently suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Told via computer generated imagery (CGI), it’s essentially a 360-degree animated experience told from the point of view of Astra, a young woman whose mother is in a coma from a recent car accident. Astra is working with a medical technician in a near future hospital, where she is engaged with a brain-computer interface, trying to make contact with her mother via an electronic link-up.

There are short scenes in which Astra enters various fictional worlds created by her mother (a children’s book author) and eventually establishes contact in a touching and effective way. The VR experience is mostly passive, allowing the viewer to look around in any direction, but not interact with any characters or objects in the scene. The camera is always placed within arm’s reach of the main characters, as if you are another person in the room observing the story.

Lucid was an official Selection of the 75th Venice International Film Festival. According to director Pete Short:

Lucid was an opportunity to explore the fading imagination of a beautiful mind. This is a topic very close to my heart because of personal experience with dementia. I wanted Lucid to be an appreciation of the happiness, joy, and love of a person’s life rather than a somber farewell. The story is set inside the mind of a children’s book writer, which lends much of the piece an innocence and cheeriness, even though it’s dealing with an extremely difficult topic. I have been waiting a long time to tell this story. VR finally allows me to tell it in a way that does it justice. The audience is granted access to Eleanor’s mind to share the final, intimate moments between a mother and daughter. As the audience find themselves immersed in the magical worlds of children’s books, I hope they will let themselves be swept away by the story.

Despite the limited interactivity, Lucid is an excellent example of VR storytelling. Well worth the price of $1.99, Lucid is representative of the high quality immersive content that continues to be available at VeeR.

VeeR

VeeR is a global VR content platform and community where users can create and share the next generation of media. It’s available on all major VR devices, providing a large library of free and paid content.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

The Limit VR Review

The Limit is a new virtual reality film, directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus. A short film in stereoscopic 180-degree format, this is a high-octane action film, putting you in the role of a bionic-enhanced human on a fast-paced quest to find another cyborg. Told in a no-holds-barred series of quick cuts and action snippets, you barely have time to breathe as you move from bar-fight to car-chase to jumping-out-of-an-airplane.

Despite director Rodriguez’s established film credentials (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, and Spy Kids), in VR his technique leaves something to be desired. Although the high production values are evident, the overall experience was too fast and furious to be enjoyable. I have nothing against action films, but this production makes clear that extreme close-ups and quick cutaways are not conducive to a pleasant experience in VR.

Most of the story is told from a first person perspective, with you as the protagonist. However, at multiple points in the film we switch to an objective POV which can be disorienting and intrusive. It would have been much more effective and immersive if the original POV was retained throughout.

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At best, The Limit is an interesting VR experiment from a high-profile filmmaker. Unfortunately, the cinematography employed is not appropriate to the medium at hand. Let’s hope that other filmmakers can figure out how to utilize top name talent in an effective VR production.

The Limit is available on all major VR platforms including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows VR, PSVR, Gear VR, Oculus Go, and Google Daydream.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

 

Blast From the Past: Quantico VR

In the spring of 2016, ABC Television released a short 360-degree video, set in the world of its popular crime drama Quantico. Although the show was cancelled in 2018, it’s worth taking a look back at this early VR experiment. Officially called Quantico: The Takedown, this short VR film was one of the first examples of a broadcast network using virtual reality (or 360 video) for a major TV series.

Sponsored by Lexus, the three and a half minute video starts in the backseat of a Lexus LX 570 SUV. Told from the point of view of a new FBI recruit, the viewer is brought along on a mission with FBI trainees Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy) and Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers) as they track down and apprehend an assigned target.

Presented in a single, uninterrupted camera shot, the viewer follows Shelby into a nightclub, where they search for and apprehend their target, then move quickly into a back alleyway. Finally, they end up back in the Lexus SUV.

It’s a short experience, but provided enough immersion to give me a feeling of what it’s like to participate on a mission with these characters. Throughout the film, the characters addressed me directly, and the camera pulled me through the story without limiting my freedom to look wherever I wanted.

Overall, a fine early example of 360 video used for a TV show. This and other early examples have led to current productions such as Nightflyers VR, The Limitand Trinity.

See below to experience Quantico: The Takedown on YouTube VR, along with a behind-the-scenes companion video (in traditional “flat” format).

Quantico VR is available via YouTube on all major VR headsets, including Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Nightflyers VR Review

Nightflyers is a new science fiction TV series premiering December 2nd on SyFy. In advance of the premiere, SyFy has launched a special three-part web series in virtual reality. Available on YouTube VR as well as on SyFy.com, each chapter in the VR mini-series is around five minutes in length.

The story follows several characters, in a series of 360-degree videos shot on the actual sets of the TV show. Special effects were also added to the production, which is essentially a short mystery on board the Nightflyer spaceship. Chapter summaries from SyFy.com are provided below (links to YouTube are included for each chapter):

Chapter 1: Alarm

Kel, a new recruit aboard the Nightflyer, must journey into the heart of the ship to uncover the secrets hidden within the starship’s dangerous cargo.

Chapter 2: Tunnel

Lommie uses her physical connection with the ship to confront the L1 telepath, supposedly being kept locked away.

Chapter 3: Circle

Kel’s harrowing journey through the Nightflyer concludes in a mind-bending showdown with Thale.

Although it can be argued that 360 video is not “true VR”, when done well it can provide a very immersive experience. Especially when presented in stereoscopic 3D, the experience can be just as good as computer-generated VR, and is usually more realistic (since the imagery is captured from real life).

Thankfully, Nightflyers is fully stereoscopic and provides a great sense of depth throughout the story. Camera movement is slow and deliberate, which works well for VR productions, in order to prevent any motion sickness due to jarring motion or quick cuts in the action.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to get a complete sense of what the TV show is about in the short time we spend with a few characters in VR. But the experience does convey a sense of the atmosphere and tone of the show. The brooding music, creepy sound effects, and claustrophobic setting create a feeling of suspense and terror that we will likely see more of in the full series.

When I watch a 360-degree video, I want to feel like I’m in another place (either real or fictional). The Nightflyers VR experience effectively transported me to the sets of the TV show, and gave me the feeling of being a part of the production. Although I could not interact with any of the characters or affect the story, I felt like I was on the ship and experiencing the adventure along with them.

The Nightflyers VR experience is available via YouTube on all major VR headsets, including Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Age of Sail Review: A Fantastic Voyage in Virtual Reality

The immersive animated VR film Age of Sail is now available for viewing at home. Google Spotlight Stories released the film on November 14th, on multiple platforms. It’s an astonishing and emotional adventure between a young girl and a seasoned captain, who meet unexpectedly at sea.

Set in the early 1900’s, Age of Sail is one of the best examples of how to use virtual reality to tell a story effectively. Although Google has released a number of Spotlight Stories over the past few years, this one is different. Approaching the artistic level of a Pixar short film, the film takes viewers (travellers is a better word) on a journey with captain William Avery. Avery is a grizzled sailboat captain who resents the fact that steamships are beginning to replace his beloved sailing vessels. He sets forth on a journey alone, but unexpectedly encounters a spirited young girl named Lara, who manages to rescue him from his sullen demeanor. Short but very moving and effective, the story is one of adventure, companionship, and determination.

Directed by Oscar-winning animator John Kahrs, the film stars Ian McShane as the captain and Cathy Ang as Lara Conrad. Age of Sail originally premiered at a number of film festivals earlier this year. A traditional “flat” version of the film was created after the VR version was produced, and is currently available on YouTube.

age-of-sail

The VR experience

Because it’s available in both traditional and VR versions, Age of Sail provides a perfect case study for comparing the differences in watching a standard film vs. an immersive VR production. It’s also possible to experience different levels of immersion and interaction, depending on the type of VR headset used.

I was able to experience the film in three different ways:

  1. The “flat” version on YouTube
  2. The limited VR version on Google Daydream (which provides three degrees of freedom)
  3. The full VR experience on Lenovo Explorer (a Windows Mixed Reality headset which offers six degrees of freedom).

The filmmakers made conscious decisions in how the various versions were presented, in order to take advantage of the medium at hand. In the traditional “flat” version, the film uses long, medium, and close-up camera shots to tell the story in a traditional way. The viewer is limited to only what the director wants you to see.

In the VR version, we become a more direct participant on the journey, although we cannot affect the story in any way. The perspective feels like we are a passenger on the boat; a passive observer, yet always close to the action.

3DoF vs. 6DoF

It’s important to note that the best way to experience Age of Sail is on a VR device that provides six degrees of freedom (6DoF). Although the viewing perspective is essentially the same as in 3DoF, a 6DoF headset allowed me to lean forward, stand up or sit down, and even walk up to the characters. I could look closely at their faces, or inspect the props they were holding (a photograph, for example).

In the limited 3DoF experience on Google Daydream, it was possible to look around in 360 degrees, but my position was locked to a fixed point in space. I could not lean forward or get closer to any part of the scene. The experience was still enjoyable, but limited because I naturally wanted to move around within the scene.

Is VR the future of film?

In a word, no. The traditional motion picture art form will live on for the foreseeable future. Virtual reality will not take anything away from the work of current filmmakers who continue to create “flat” films.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the introduction of VR into the filmmaker’s lexicon will be disruptive in the way that CGI technology impacted stop-motion special effects. When Jurassic Park arrived in 1993, it effectively ended the need for stop-motion photography (made famous by artists like Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett). The stop-motion art form lives on in the works of Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and others, but CGI has largely replaced its use in live-action films.

However, virtual reality gives us a new perspective and a new approach to film-making. As a viewer, I naturally want to get closer to the action, and VR affords me that possibility. When the story is told effectively, and I am given a choice to look where I want in a scene, I become a participant rather than merely a viewer.

The challenge for VR filmmakers is to avoid giving viewers too many choices, or granting them too much autonomy in what they can do on their own. That being said, Age of Sail provides a perfect balance between freedom and restriction, allowing viewers to feel like they are really on board a sailing ship, in the midst of an unforgettable story.

Age of Sail is available for free on Steam, YouTube and via Google Spotlight Story’s iOS and Android apps.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

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My Trip to the VOID: Star Wars Virtual Reality

In October 2018, I had an opportunity to try The VOID’s virtual reality attraction “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” at Disney Springs in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

The VOID is one of the top creators of “location based” virtual reality (VR) experiences. They have built facilities at a number of locations around the world, and are adding more as we speak. In addition to the Star Wars attraction, they also offer a VR adventure in the world of Ghostbusters, as well as a horror-themed attraction, “Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment” (whatever that means).

This was not my first time at a VOID attraction. I had previously visited the Ghostbusters experience at Madame Tussaud’s in New York City, and had a fantastic time. This time, I was looking forward to going inside the world of Star Wars, through the magic of virtual reality.

The venue

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Disney Springs is a busy place, and I was a bit concerned about the crowds. I did not make a reservation in advance, but decided to drop in around noon on a busy Friday in October. At the reservation desk, I asked if I should reserve a time later in the day, or just go in now. Surprisingly, the attendant said there was a group starting in a few minutes which I could join immediately. I was by myself, so I would be grouped with three random participants. I was given a wristband with my identification as “REBEL Roy.” The price (with tax) came to $37.94.

wristband - Copy

After registration, I had to sign a liability waiver using one of the iPads on one side of the lobby. Personally, I wasn’t too concerned about dying in VR. After all, this wasn’t an episode of Black Mirror. I was just here to have a good time!

Gearing up

There was a short delay while the group in front of us took a bit longer inside the attraction, but ultimately we were underway in about twenty minutes. We entered in two groups of four, and proceeded to the introduction area. Large viewscreens were displayed on both sides of the room, with each group of four facing their own screen. First we had to activate our wristbands (using iPads mounted on pedestals in front of the screen) and select a color scheme for our stormtrooper armor, which would be visible in the virtual environment. This would enable us to identify each other inside the experience.

An introduction film played simultaneously on both screens, with the audio piped in via speakers throughout the room. We would all be disguised as stormtroopers (in virtual reality, of course), and tasked to infiltrate an Imperial base. Our mission briefing was provided by Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). After the short introductory film, we were escorted into the next room.

This is where we were instructed to put on our gear, which consisted of a vest/backpack and a VR headset with built-in headphones and a flip-up visor. The attendant ensured that each of us were properly fitted and fully ready to go. Once ready, we were escorted into the attraction proper and told to lower our visors to begin the experience.

Amusement and amazement

Without giving away any major spoilers, the basic story involves meeting a few characters from the Star Wars universe (good guys and bad guys), and blasting at various enemies while walking around different environments on a lava planet. The most fun part of the experience is actually seeing yourself and your companions dressed as stormtroopers, and bumping into each other as you try to get through doors, across bridges and around various droids and other Star Wars props. Although I had just met my companions for the first time, we all laughed a lot just navigating through the experience. I’m sure it would be even more fun with close friends and family members (Grandma? – maybe not).

What sets the VOID apart, besides the ability to roam freely in a VR world, is the multi-sensory experience. Early in your adventure, you pick up a blaster rifle (an actual object in the real world, which looks like a stormtrooper rifle in VR). You feel the wind and heat when you travel on a troop transport over the lava planet. You can touch other real objects (walls, railings, even droids), while your VR stormtrooper hand touches them in the virtual world. The haptic vests provide feedback from blaster fire, and other environmental effects. All of these things add up to an amazing experience that you simply can’t have with at-home VR technology.

There were moments when I truly experienced a sense of “presence” in VR, where I felt like I was actually in another place. As I traversed a narrow platform high over a lava lake, I took baby steps for fear of falling over the edge. As I was blasting enemies with with my stormtrooper rifle, it felt as real as if I were actually in a Star Wars movie.

A few (minor) issues

Overall, the VOID’s Star Wars attraction is the best experience I’ve had till now in VR. Admittedly, there were a few times when the virtual imagery was out of sync, or there seemed to be a lag when my companions would appear to jump forward  or “slide” instead of walking more naturally. These cases were few and far between, and did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the experience.

Unfortunately, there was a point towards the end of the adventure (which lasted around 10-12 minutes), where we got stuck. In one of the final rooms, the end scene did not trigger properly, and we couldn’t figure out what to do next. Open a door? Hit a droid on the head? Eventually, an attendant had to escort us out of the experience, and allowed us to start over. In my case, I didn’t have time to go through again, but thankfully I was given a voucher for a free experience on a future date.

Given the advanced technology required for free-roam virtual reality, it’s understandable that there may be some hiccups or bugs as VR continues to develop and improve. However, the potential is enormous, and I expect that this type of attraction will proliferate worldwide in the months and years ahead.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

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