Andrew Cochrane has been at the forefront of storytelling through emerging technologies for over five years at Mirada Studios. Among other things, the digital/interactive director was a technical supervisor to the team that brought the FX series, The Strain, to virtual reality, and has also explored VR at the studio with Google Cardboard, filming a VR tour of Google headquarters.
“Reading about or listening to or watching a character go on a fantastic journey is never going to be as exciting as going yourself,” Cochrane says.
At the upcoming Vision VR/AR Summit, he will share his experiences working on three VR projects where real-time effects and interactivity were combined with live-action content. In this interview, Cochrane talks about the evolution of VR, and how it’s reshaping everything from Hollywood to marketing.
How have you seen virtual reality evolve over the years?
Virtual reality has lived in the academic/R&D fringes for over 20 years, and it has only moved into a place where consumers can actually access the hardware, software, and content this year. The rush to start developing technologies and content for VR really kicked off with the Oculus Rift DK1. It was the first time that VR seemed doable at a consumer level, and we jumped on it immediately. A lot of techniques and technologies that are tangentially required for creating immersive video and other VR content have evolved rapidly to become VR-specific. Camera arrays, stitching, CG and other VFX processes, and real-time/interactive engines have all taken massive leaps along with the headsets and other hardware required to make VR a reality.
What about virtual reality do you find fascinating?
The most fascinating thing about VR is that pretty much everyone who tries it immediately loves it, which is rare for any medium. It took audiences a while to adapt to web video and mobile apps as entertainment, but VR is almost instant. I personally love the idea that you are not telling a story, you are creating an experience, which is much harder but ultimately more rewarding.
What research did you do to prepare for this speaking role?
One of the keys to VR and AR success is making sure that the entire community of technologists and creatives set expectations. Anything new is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming by its very nature, so we work hard to help our partners and clients understand what is involved in creating high-quality VR and AR content. Part of this is outreach and education, which has led to us presenting at conferences and giving “VR-101” sessions, to make sure that everyone has as much information as possible before embarking on their first VR project. This educational push has included SXSW, NAB, AICP, VRLA, VES, SIGGRAPH, Digital Hollywood, and numerous agencies, brands, networks, and studios. The recent slip in Oculus and Vive shipping dates (and the resultant anger and confusion from potential consumers) is proof that setting reasonable expectations is important, and ultimately helps everyone.
Can you detail your virtual reality project?
At the summit, we’ll be presenting details on three projects, each of which used Unity to drive the playback of 360-degree video, immersive audio, and to provide interactive and reactive components. Rather than creating a single monolithic “end-all-be-all” platform for creating VR experiences, we have focused on developing interactive techniques and working with third-party plug-in developers to build a suite of approaches that we can select from, to tailor each app to a specific experience. This presentation will walk through the various ways that we have used Unity technologies and plugins for audio and video to add real-time effects and interactivity to our pre-rendered and live-action content.
What activities do you do to stay relevant in this field?
We download or try every experience that we can. It’s important to see the good and the bad, and try to find something to learn from all of it. There are great techniques in mediocre VR apps, and fantastic missteps in excellent top-tier content. Everything is a learning opportunity right now, so we work hard to sample all that we can and to test every new piece of software and hardware that comes out. If we can get beta or even alpha access to something, we jump at it, because it is critical to know the strengths and weaknesses of every tool for creating these types of experiences.
What was your first “win” that made you confident that you were doing the right thing?
We started our internal R&D dive into VR when the first Oculus DK1 arrived at the studio. It was almost two years before we rolled our pipeline into production to create a virtual tour for Google, which we shot in January 2015 and delivered in March. At the time, nobody had attempted to put all of the pieces together that this experience encompasses -- multi-layered stereo spherical live-action footage, stereo spherical CG, spatial audio, and real-time interactivity. We knew that our R&D was solid and that this was all possible, even on the tight deadline of this project, but even our partners were nervous since nothing like this had been released to prove it would work. When the app was released, it was a huge validation that all of our hard work behind the scenes had been successful. We’re proud of this app, and the wide-ranging capabilities that it demonstrates, and it has paved the way for everything else that we have done in VR in 2015.
How do you avoid being complacent in virtual reality?
It’s impossible to be complacent right now without getting left behind – everything is moving too fast. We are not at a stable, mature place yet, as a medium or as an industry. As the hardware and software improve, the capabilities for creating better content are expanding. As consumer awareness and desire for VR increases, their appetite for better experiences similarly drives the need to constantly push further and always do something that moves the dial and tries to do something new.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Learn how to program earlier, round out your interactive abilities sooner, focus on the things you like doing rather than what you think you should like doing. Follow your instincts, if it interests you, it will interest other people too! If you want to make something, make it.
Where do you see virtual reality five years from now?
Virtual reality will be at a relatively mature place, with established ecosystems that allow the creation, distribution, and consumption of high-end content. Hopefully, markerless hand and body tracking will be stable and widely available to power a high level of interactivity. Light field, photogrammetry, and similar capture/rendering technologies will also hopefully be refined enough to use in creating photo-real interactive environments and to put real actors into room-scale experiences.
Where do you see augmented reality five years out?
Augmented reality will be earlier on the adoption curve, but we hope that there will be a Cardboard-like moment where millions of devices with capable tracking and rendering are driving awareness and desire. We’re anticipating that most of our technologies will roll into AR from VR, as the two mediums share much in common.
What role do you see a cross-platform, cross-discipline conference like this playing in that future?
We see a lot of convergence between traditional entertainment, gaming, software, and hardware happening now. VR is quickly becoming the ultimate convergence point for a lot of content and technologies, and cross-discipline rather than narrow focus is the way to go. Conferences like CES, NAB, E3, GDC, and SIGGRAPH are all starting to see much more crossover in the vendors and attendees, which reflects the increasingly overlapped interest in between all of the players in the VR and AR space.
Creatively, what do you see virtual reality and augmented reality opening up for your field?
The most exciting aspect of virtual reality and augmented reality is that they open up the ability to not just tell stories to our audience, but to create worlds where they get to experience incredible adventures for themselves. Reading about or listening to or watching a character go on a fantastic journey is never going to be as exciting as going yourself, and VR/AR are the first mediums to offer us the ability to give that experience to a large number of people. First-person narrative is an incredible space to play in, and we are all only just dipping the very tips of our toes into an enormously deep and powerful new phase of entertainment.