You can get all sorts of VR experiences right now if you’re in possession of a VR headset. There are plenty of VR games, short films, simulations, and more to spend your time on. But how does someone actually go about making virtual reality experiences? There’s a saying that states you should never know how the sausage is made, but I think when it comes to VR, even people who never intend to make any of their own VR content should understand what goes into it.
So here I want to talk about how VR is made at a high level. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a terribly technical person to understand any of this, but there are already some basic forms of VR that you can create yourself today. To make things simple I’ve divided VR content production into two broad categories – computer-generated and recorded.
Computer-generated virtual reality content is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s made using computer software by software developers. To create an immersive 3D virtual environment basically requires almost the same skillset as you need to create a 3D video game – the sort you’d find on your Playstation or Xbox. At the core of a computer-generated VR experience is something called an “engine”. Usually this is the same engine technology that drives our video games. These engines are pieces of software that handle all the highly-technical aspects of creating complex graphics, running physics simulations, managing artificial intelligence, and integrating all the internal rules and logic of the world.
It’s rare for a content creator to go so far as to make their own engine. It’s expensive, technically-complex, and takes time and money away from the making of the content itself. So most of the time the engine is licensed from larger companies that specialize in making these. For example, at the moment one of the most popular engines for creating 3D mobile software is called Unity. While most Unity applications are video games, almost all VR applications on the various app stores are based on Unity technology.
With the engine in place it’s up to the maker of the VR application to design an experience, program it, and create it using the engine’s abilities. The actual visual assets are created in various ways. A common method is to use a 3D sculpting program such as ZBrush or Sculptris to make the objects that you see in the virtual world. These are then painted and sometimes rigged for animation. All of this is then brought together according to the planned design to make the final experience. That’s a very “Cliff Notes” version of what actually happens, but it’s the gist of it.
Interactive and Non-Interactive VR
When you make a computer-generated VR experience, it means that you have complete control over what a person sees and what happens. Barring technical limitations, your only real limit is the human imagination.
This also means that you can make a VR experience where the person who is experiencing it can affect it in different ways. This can be simple interactivity where doors open or other movement is activated. It can also be a full-blown game, with rules, win-conditions, and game mechanics.
Of course, the more interactive your VR experience becomes the more important the control system becomes. If all you have is a mobile VR system with only a single button and head tracking for control, it limits what you can do. Adding a gamepad to the mix seriously expands interactivity (if not immersion), while full motion controls are the most complicated but provide the most realistic experience.
The Money Problem
In general, computer-generated VR experiences, even the “on rails” kind, are the most costly and time-consuming forms of VR. That is why the next main type of VR production is so popular with those who want to create VR content using more traditional methods.
The alternative option to computer-generated VR is, in many ways, much easier to produce. I’m referring to recording real life events to be consumed on VR hardware. This has proven to be an immensely popular way to make VR content. All you need is a special sort of camera to take extremely wide-angle videos or photos, and voila! – you have your basic VR product. This is already taking off with sports coverage, musical performances, and film-making. So what do you need to make this sort of VR?
The simplest solution is to use something called a 360-degree camera. It’s actually multiple cameras sort of strapped together. These cameras come in normal old 2D and in stereoscopic versions. The 2D 360-degree cameras usually have two lenses back-to-back, with 180-degree capture arcs. Special software stitches the 180-degree videos together, allowing the viewer to freely look around at whatever they like. It’s still just like looking at the inside of a flat sphere, however. If you want it to be in 3D you need to double the amount of lenses in play. That gives you a little bit more depth.
What matters most next is the perspective of your camera. Let’s say that you’re trying to record a concert. If you want to make it feel like sitting in the seat, then the camera has to be at the correct eye level. You can also do something more dynamic and put the camera right on stage so that the viewer gets a perspective that no regular audience member could ever get. But you have to be mindful of making the viewer feel cramped or uncomfortable – something that’s a little hard to know beforehand if it’s a live event. So some testing is in order.
It’s also become quite popular to use an actor or other person as a perspective point. They wear a special head mount and the cameras essentially sees what they see. This is great for personal stories, training, and, of course, action sports.
Making DIY VR
The good news is that regular Joes and Janes like you and me can use recorded VR methods to make our own experiences. 360-degree cameras aren’t that expensive, and you can use your phone to make 360-degree spherical photos. The future of user-generated content is going to include a lot of home VR movies, and I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be a great thing.
The More the Merrier
One of the most important things VR needs in order to succeed is content. One day all content may be VR or AR, but right now things are still pretty much in early days. Already, however, there are people who understand the potential and art of VR. There’s even a whole new class of camera called “light field” designed to capture a scene in every little 3D detail – a development that will make truly cinematic VR a possibility.
It’s just starting, but the future of VR lies in the perfection of these techniques. Right now, in terms of the development of TV we’ve barely reached the point of color. There’s still a long way to go, but the ride promises to be a fun one.