A few months ago, I found myself in a yard next to a school in Peru. Some Americans had come to give away shoes to students. I saw the students playing soccer, jumping rope, and dancing in their newly acquired shoes. It nearly brought me to tears.
I wasn’t actually there. I was watching a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) video from the company Toms Shoes. It was a commercial, in fact. But I don’t think I’ve seen a better commercial in my life. It immediately made me appreciate the Toms tradition of giving away a pair of shoes for every pair it sells. But it was so moving because it made me feel like I was right there with those poor kids, living with them. I felt so happy for them.
A production company called Vrse.works produced the video, which you can watch on YouTube through a Google Cardboard headset, or through the startup Vrse‘s app for iOS, Android, or Samsung Gear VR. It’s also available on the Web in Vrse’s custom-built embeddable media player.
Unlike some of the VR video content I’ve watched, the video looked clear and felt comfortable to watch the whole way through — I wanted it to last much longer. It was hard to spot seams where the 360-degree video had been stitched together. There were no blurry areas blocking the tripod holding up the camera. This clearly was the work of a master.
He’s worked with Kanye
The founder and CEO of Vrse — and a cofounder and creative director at Vrse.works — is Chris Milk. His name might sound familiar because Milk has directed music videos for Arcade Fire, Beck, Kanye West, Modest Mouse, and U2, among others. But since December of 2014, his life has been focused on virtual reality. Vrse has raised money from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, Live Nation, Vice Media, YouTube cofounder Steve Chen, and Elisabeth Murdoch’s Freelands Ventures. He has made videos in partnership with Apple Music, NBC, the New York Times, and the United Nations, to name a few.
Sure, there are other startups working with VR content: Jaunt, NextVR, Vrideo, Wevr. With enough funding, usage, and third-party adoption, any one of these, or a few of them, could become the big content platform for VR across multiple VR devices. But if there’s something that distinguishes Vrse, it’s a commitment to high quality. If this approach reminds me of any technology company, it is Apple.
And sure enough, Milk and his group have already worked with Apple. There are now videos with U2 and Muse.
Milk wants these videos, and others, to be widely accessible.
For billions, not millions
“If you love U2, this is an experience that one of the billions of people around the world that have a smartphone can have,” Milk said in a conversation with me at a hotel where he was staying during a recent visit to San Francisco. “And I mean, in 2020, 80 percent of adults in the world will have a smartphone. That’s the addressable market, not the 60-something million HMDs [head-mounted displays] that are projected by 2020.”
Milk reached into his backpack and pulled out a Samsung Gear VR headset and a pair of big cushy headphones. He had me put on the equipment and watch a video he directed called “The Evolution of Verse.” It’s heavy on computer-generated imagery, and it’s powerful — it left me with a sense of awe. He gets that type of response a lot. No wonder watching people experience it doesn’t ever get old for him.
The next thing I knew, someone sitting next to us in the hotel restaurant asked us what we were doing, and he gave the demo to her. She started telling him about her own work and how perhaps it could be depicted in VR video. “From people being interested in making content, I can’t physically handle the amount of inflow requests there are,” he told me. “What you just saw here today is basically what happens about 172 times a day.”
But even with all of the inbound interest, Milk, who lives in Los Angeles, isn’t interested in giving everyone the tools to build their own VR video. Instead, he is very slowly expanding a little collection of content that his enclave has put together.
He and his colleagues have tried out many cameras for recording VR video, and ultimately they elected to design their own, with each rig carrying multiple cameras and microphones. They’ve also come up with a binaural sound engine that makes it possible for sounds to be delivered around a person in a three-dimensional space. So putting on headphones when you experience a video from Vrse is actually important.
“Your head is a stereo input,” Milk said. “The density and cartilage of your ears embed certain extra characteristics into stereo sound sources. Your brain decodes that and gives you sound plus conscious directions.”
It’s not about UGC!
If you just hold out a phone in front of you while the U2 video is playing, then sure, it will be interesting, but when you have the headphones delivering sound the way that Milk and crew intended, you’ll hear Bono’s voice on one side of your head and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming on the other side. And this obsession with the quality of experience is what can distinguish Vrse from competitors.
Vrse’s engineering team is listening to filmmakers and adjusting the startup’s video player accordingly. And eventually, as the startup matures, certain content will be monetized.
Unlike, say, YouTube, Vrse is not focusing on user-generated content.
“The reason is that a bad digital video or television show or movie is just a waste of your time. It’s boring,” he said. “You don’t pay attention to it, or it doesn’t affect you. A bad version of a virtual reality video makes you vomit in your headset in under 10 seconds. It’s much easier to make bad VR than it is to make good VR. It’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to make great VR right now.”
So that is Vrse’s calling at the moment.
“What we want Vrse to be is a collection of the best in class — the greatest cinematic VR that you can see, and a place that you can trust,” Milk said. “It’s a place where you go in the same way you go to HBO. If there’s a new HBO series, you know there’s going to be a certain level of storytelling mastery, that you can trust it.”
And as of this writing, HBO isn’t really a major force in VR.
Fortunately, Milk isn’t just another businessman trying to cash in on an opportunity. The big picture of VR that he perceives happens to be a very hopeful one. In a TED Talk Milk gave last year, he explained that VR can be more than just another technology.
“It’s not a video game peripheral,” he said. “It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other.”