Joining the VR Swarm from the East

I tried VR for the first time a year ago at the i_doc workshop in Nyon/Switzerland during the Visions du Réel film festival. Now fast forward to today: I have my own headset, 360 camera, and probably all the possible VR related apps on my smartphone. I’m working on a huge interactive animated VR project commissioned by the Lithuanian Film Center as well as a few smaller personal projects.

To stay on the fast moving Wild West of the emerging VR industry and to live in Eastern Europe are two things that don’t get along very well, though VR enthusiasts are based everywhere around the world.

2016 is set to be the year VR reaches a mass audience; long awaited releases of the HTC Vive, Samsung’s Gear VR, and the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift have already happened. And Sony’s PlayStation VR will be shipped in autumn.

Together with VR events and exhibitions that are happening during various tech, creativity, and cinema festivals, it seems that the VR wave in Western Europe is rising, while it is still rather flat in Lithuania and Eastern Europe in general.

The money and tech infrastructure is in the West, so only enthusiasts can push the East to join the global VR swarm. And it’s happening little by little. Last month, the first ever virtual reality hackathon was organized in Lithuania. With 60+ participants, 13 teams, and projects ranging from ultrasound-based positional tracking solution for mobile VR to a mind-controlled game or a VR-based web browsing experience, the event was widely considered a success that should strengthen the Lithuanian VR community.

My main lesson from the hackathon as a mentor? Tech solutions are better than the stories that projects tell and emotions they create – that’s the minus. On the positive side, all projects were interactive ones that give participants varying amounts of control. None featured cinematic VR experiences (that is, VR based purely on looking around).

Yes, there are two distinct types of VR experiences: »True VR« and 360 video (or »Cinematic VR«). What’s the difference? In 360 video, the consumer functions as a passenger in the storyteller’s world; in True VR, the consumer takes the wheel.

But the more you know how it should look like, the more you realize that you don’t know how to make it. On the Internet, there are thousands of articles, mostly promoting and presenting stuff, dozens of forums where valuable tips and tricks are hidden, and a handful of VR companies that value their know-how and keep it to themselves.

There are more questions than answers, and content creators from both West and East are left to themselves to experiment, to try and fail in the wild land of VR opportunities. You have to dig the metadata gold of composing and rendering, masking the stitching line in the fields of tutorials, stumble in the interwebs between the reasons to move the viewpoint or camera, to observe, or to participate.

All in all, right now is the analog age of VR, where early developments in story will transform the novelty of the virtual experience into authentic adoption. At this point, VR is just for early adopters with money (or time) to burn. But just you wait. At least, I will …