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Virtual Reality: On brink of mass market with exciting opportunities for publishers

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Virtual Reality: On brink of mass market with exciting opportunities for publishers

Purple Pill VR is so early in its start-up life that we meet founders Thierry Pul and Nick Kraakman in Pul’s home by Amsterdam’s Rosengracht canal. The company just got their very first funding, 50,000 euros, in February this year, and the priority then was hardware, not office space, says Kraakman.

To secure the initial funding, Pul and Kraakman rented 16 GoPro cameras for a day, mounted them in a very basic spherical case and proved the concept sufficiently to convince their first investor. The 50,000 euros were used to actually buy the 500-euro cameras, a 3D printer to produce a more robust case, and computer muscle. As it is, the very top spec iMac K5 on the table can just about cope with what’s asked of it. Everything is filmed in 3D and needs to be rendered twice, once for the left eye and once for the right. "It was the same when HD video first appeared – neither software nor hardware could really handle it. In a couple of years, the hardware will have caught up with VR requirements," says Kraakman. The camera they have built is also ahead of its time. There is nothing like it to buy at this point – though similar camera rigs have been announced by the likes of Samsung, Google and GoPro.

The headsets we tested are developer editions; equivalent consumer kit is due out next year, according to Kraakman.

Ambisonic sound

Virtual reality has so far been the realm mainly of gamers, with expensive devices requiring cabling up with a computer. The new-generation VR equipment, such as Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, instead relies on mobile phone apps, with the phone being slotted into the front of the headset.

With much industry effort being spent on the hardware, compelling non-gaming VR content is still rare. That, rather than tech development, is the focus of Purple Pill. While Kraakman and Pul have created the camera, workflow and mobile app, "it’s essentially all made up from off-the-shelf products combined in a smart way. What we do is add layers, like the ambisonic sound, and our own mobile apps, which can be branded."

The first video Purple Pill produced was a nine-minute film from a theatre performance. That led to the first paid assignment, which they had completed just weeks before we visit: a commemorative film commissioned by football club PSV Eindhoven.

Purple Pill was the only company allowed to film during the awards ceremony of the Dutch championship, which PSV won for the first time in eight years or so. The VR camera was then put on the open-top double-decker bus taking the team around the streets of Eindhoven, full of cheering crowds. Watching this demo film, it really does feel like the crowds are cheering for you.

PSV’s plan for the footage is to include it in a VR experience in their museum. They will also give season ticket holders a Google Cardboard and the Purple Pill app as a gift. "The Cardboard is great, as it only costs US$ 10-20, depending on volumes, and we can brand it Purple Pill by printing it," says Kraakman.

Journalism: transport your viewers

Pul sees many opportunities for publishers, including actual reporting.

“VR allows users to be transported to where something is actually happening. I think this could really add to people’s feeling of being attached to what is happening in the world. Or take the earthquake in Nepal and the fundraising efforts. People are numb to images from catastrophes, but imagine being able to actually take them to see the devastation.”

Another big opportunity is of course large events, although live still presents a challenge: "There’s so much data coming out of the camera, it’s very difficult to stream it. We can do it in theory, but in reality it’s still some way away."

Story-telling challenge

In terms of directing, the biggest difference between virtual reality and traditional filmmaking is that, while with normal films the viewer will see whatever the director chooses to put in the frame, with VR, your audience can move their heads around.

"It’s very hard to steer people when they can look around. This is key for us as filmmakers to figure out, and it was something we really missed when we looked at the video content that is already out there. They place the camera somewhere and you can look around, but that’s it. There’s nothing to grab your attention and hold it to the end. That’s really something we try to focus on," says Pul. Purple Pill are currently also developing graphic user interfaces for virtual reality, which are "non-existent," he says.

At the moment it’s about controlling the experience through eye movement, but hardware developers are working on hand-tracking (with a small camera on the headset), and Pul believes this will become the main way to build virtual reality GUIs in the future.

Vice: first VR newscast

If you are interested in seeing a journalistic example of what can be done, check out Vice’s VR newscast from December in New York City, where reporter Alice Speri takes you inside the demonstration for police accountability, which drew 60,000 people. It’s available through the VRSE app, which you can download from iTunes or Google Play and view using your phone and a Google Cardboard.

WAN-IFRA visited Purple Pill as part of our eRev Executive Programme.


Cecilia Campbell's picture

Cecilia Campbell


2015-09-07 08:45

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