In 2014, I made a prediction. Virtual reality, I believed, would be the future of filmmaking. I was mostly correct; I was also terribly wrong. I was right in that dozens of filmmakers were going to embrace the 360-degree, immersive world of VR—this was obvious even from the half-dozen or so experiences tucked away in a small room at the Sundance Film Festival, where I had my epiphany. I was wrong in making it sound as though VR was going to up and replace film. It didn’t. It likely won’t. Ready Player One-style virtual worlds may never take the place of multiplexes, but immersive entertainment can change the landscape—if its creators can get people to pony up for it.
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In the last four years, much has changed in the world of 360-degree filmmaking. These days virtual reality has a presence at most major film festivals. Scores of movies and TV shows now have headset-ready experiences to accompany them. Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s VR installation Carne y Arena even won a special-achievement award from the Academy of Motion Pictures. The world VR pioneers envisioned in 2014 has come to pass. “Everything I could’ve imagined to legitimize the artform, almost all of it’s happened,” says former Oculus Story Studio producer Edward Saatchi, who last week launched his new immersive film studio, Fable. “The only thing that hasn’t happened is, like, any evidence that consumers will purchase it—which is a fairly significant missing piece. So the really important ‘What now?’ is demonstrating you can make revenue.”
Oh yes, that old chestnut: making money. If you’re a startup, nascent industry, or even just a person with a good idea, you know you’ve made it when people start wondering if you’re a goldmine. For VR filmmakers, that time is coming—if not already here. With the news yesterday that VR-in-space experience Spheres had been acquired for seven figures at the festival, it’s clear the medium is moving into the realms normally occupied by traditional filmmakers and studios, but that’s only part of the necessary shift. Getting a company to acquire a piece of content and getting consumers to watch it are two different things.
“In the past year or so, no one has asked me, ‘Can you tell a story in VR?’” says Oculus executive producer Yelena Rachitsky. “VR is creating a whole new type of content, but it’s also having audiences understand what it is. So it’s teaching them how this works and what it is and what to call it and connect to it, which we’re slowly doing.”
To create something people can connect to, Saatchi’s company has been working on a piece called Wolves in the Walls, the first chapter of which is showing this week at Sundance. Adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman, it’s an experiment in getting viewers to interact with a story’s protagonist—in this case, a girl named Lucy, who asks them to help her prove there are creatures living in the walls of her house. Using Oculus’ Touch controllers, she’s able to virtually hand viewers cameras and let them take pictures. She’s programmed to have different responses based on what it is the viewers do, and she remembers their various actions for future reference. Unlike the interactions in most narrative VR, and all movies, Wolves lets viewers participate.
In Saatchi’s mind, that’s the start of the next phase of interactive filmmaking: creating characters that can later be ported over to an augmented reality system like Magic Leap or integrated with a virtual assistant like Alexa. In this world, Lucy would live in your Oculus headset, but sit next to you on the couch when you’re in AR and answer questions about what show you should watch on TV. It’s an ambitious jump, but a necessary one—now that VR storytelling has arrived, its creators need to figure out where it’s going.
“Four years ago, there was just VR, and now my personal belief is that we should be focused a future where the the thing that goes mainstream is VR/AR,” says Saatchi, who launched Fable with more than a few folks from Story Studio, which Oculus shuttered last spring. “We got to reset after Story Studio, now it’s ‘What is a five-year vision from 2017?’ instead of ‘What is the end of the vision we had in 2013, 2014?’”
Saatchi isn’t the only one. In its quest to find room in the marketplace, VR filmmaking may be feeling some pressure from other tech. In the time that the cottage industry of people making narrative VR has been working to prove their mettle, other forms of interactive entertainment have come to the fore, augmented reality and AI-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo chief among them. And now those technologies are the new kids on the block, showing up at events like Sundance. They’re still in something of an infancy stage by comparison—at the festival’s forward-looking New Frontier program this year, there are 18 VR projects, one AR offering, two AI ones, and two MR—but there’s undeniable hype around them. And with stories like this Economist piece and headlines that ask “Game over for virtual reality?,” it’s incumbent on VR to play nice, especially if it wants to be a food group in viewers’ media diets.
Generally speaking, VR films/experiences/what-have-you are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment—TV, social media, videogames, podcasts—does. But that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR films don’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels. Studios come to Sundance to acquire movies to send to theaters (or Netflix/Amazon), but they don’t really buy VR stuff. (Spheres‘ got picked up by a VR funding outfit called CityLights.) Some projects get released through standalone VR apps for headsets—like the one from Within—and others are available through services like Steam or the stores for Oculus and HTC Vive, but there is no single centralized place with with all the best content. “I think there’s an inflection point for VR in terms of it occupying the same space as social media/TV/film,” says Gabo Arora, cofounder and creator of VR studio Tomorrow Never Knows. “VR as a medium, though, is not there to supplant these formats, and it’s being degraded by trying to fit into their distribution channels.”
VR experiences are meant to fill the same free time that any form of entertainment does—but that’s an increasingly crowded room, and VR doesn’t fit neatly into pre-existing distribution channels.
Arora’s Sundance experience, it’s worth noting, does have social aspects. Created with Sensorium‘s John Fitzgerald and Matthew Niederhauser, Zikr: A Sufi Revival lets multiple users join together in VR to experience, and learn about, the mystical Islamic practice of Sufism. It’s a thought-provoking piece—and an interesting use of the format to help viewers grasp an often misunderstood religious sect—but it’s probably better suited for a museum or cultural center than a living room. Zikr and Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena are are showing the future of the medium, Arora says, but “it’s not going to be about how many shares it gets on Facebook, but how we can then extend interactivity into more social realms.”
Indeed, a taxonomy of narrative VR experiences is beginning to emerge. Zikr is more like a theatrical release—something you experience out in the world with others—while something like Wolves in the Walls is better suited to home viewing. Other pieces might be just fine on Google Cardboard or easily ported to whatever kind of VR-viewing setup is available. But none of them really offer much insight on where narrative VR belongs.
Meanwhile, VR continues to untether itself from computers and phones, with wireless-capable headsets (HTC Vive Pro) and all-in-one “standalone” devices (Oculus Go) on the horizon this year. And as the technology becomes more mobile, it can really go anywhere. Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, cofounders of VR studio Within, see a future in which VR, AI, and AR all coexist and the next generation—already attuned to living in a virtual reality on their smartphones—hang out in it with their friends whenever they want. (Let’s face it, kids who hang out on their smartphones rather than partying won’t even question where online social interactions fit into their media diets.)
It’s a world they’ve already started building. Within’s Sundance entry his year is a multi-person VR experience that turns you and your friends into female warriors set to the song “Chorus” by Justice, but for them it’s one of the first steps into a world where social VR other augmented reality technologies are a part of daily life—at home, at the theater, in a museum, and beyond.
“There are definitely pieces that feel more aligned with a heavy, thoughtful film festival, but I look at it like [VR] is a transmission tool. It’s a machine, in the same way a television is machine,” Milk says. “Ultimately, that’s what builds a truly new medium, it’s not something that you just see in amusement parks or film festivals. There eventually needs to be something for everyone in there.”
If the last four years have proven anything, it’s that VR experiences, in whatever form they may take, belong at film festivals. The next four years may prove they belong everywhere else.
When you start researching video streaming devices, the first ones you’ll find will likely be Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV. Between those three there’s a decent price range, so your search can just stop there, right?
Wrong. While the most popular video streaming devices out there will likely be a good fit for many users, there are other options you should look at.
Perhaps you’re looking for more versatility? Maybe you’re a power user that wants something extremely tweakable? Are you looking for a cheap PlayStation alternative? Or you’re just looking for the cheapest possible option out there that also does 4K?
We’ve rounded up some of the lesser-known video streaming devices out there to ease your search.
China’s Xiaomi has a reputation for delivering solid products with top-notch specs for an impossibly low price. The company has done it with nearly every gadget you can think of — from smartphones to smart TVs to scooters, and with the Xiaomi Mi Box, it entered the video streaming space as well.
And yes, for the features it offers — Android TV 6.0, 4K streaming, HDR video support, DTS/Dolby Digital Plus support and a Bluetooth voice remote — the Mi Box is pretty darn cheap at $69. Add to that the elegant, simple, Apple-like design, and you get a pretty sweet deal.
Since the device is Android TV-based, you get a ton of apps, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Vevo, Vudu Plex, and Google Play Movies & TV. Google Cast is built in, so you’ll be able to send content to your TV from phones, laptops, tablets and more.
The specs are decent: quad-core Cortex-A53 CPU, MALI 450 GPU 2GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage (expandable via a USB port). And this is where you might find chinks in Mi Box’s armor: While these specs are decent, especially for the price, some users might want more powerful innards to power 4K playback.
Starting at $179, the Nvidia Shield is one of the most expensive video streaming devices, but hear us out. This device is an absolute powerhouse, with an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor, 3GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, which should be enough for smooth 4K playback. It also supports HDR playback, Dolby Atmos/DTS-X audio, and comes with a remote, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 jacks, and an HDMI 2.0 jack. It runs Android TV, meaning you get the Google software experience and all the nice apps that go with it.
But besides being a great media-streaming machine, the Shield’s greatest strength is that it’s also a game console. Add $20 to the base price and you get a game controller (for $299 you also get 500GB of storage instead of 16GB). So what can you do with all that? Play games, of course! For $7.99 per month, you can subscribe to GeForce Now, which lets you play Android titles such as Outlast 2, Obduction, and The Surge as you would with a GTX 1080 GPU, and stream them to your big screen.
Obviously, you do not need this device if you only want a media streaming device, and that’s perfectly fine. But if price is no issue, and you’re not a big fan of Apple TV, the Nvidia Shield is pretty powerful, and one of the most versatile media streaming devices you’ll find.
Roku sells quite a few video streaming devices, so you’ll be forgiven if you’ve overlooked the Roku Express. Its specs are nothing special: You get 720p or 1080p resolution, a single HDMI jack, a remote… and that’s about it.
But where Roku Express wins is the price. At just $29.99, it’s the cheapest option out there (outside of no-name devices from China), and for the price, you also get a remote and an HDMI cable, so you’re ready to go pretty much as soon as you bring it home. It’s the perfect option for someone that’s just not sure whether she needs a media streaming device in their life, or as a secondary device for your bedroom.
Supported apps include the usual suspects: Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, and Google Play Movies & TV, among others.
If you want all the latest bells and whistles, such as 4K resolution and HDR support, you can also check Roku’s most powerful video streaming device, the Roku Ultra. You’ll have to dish out three times the money, as it costs $99, but it’s still a pretty fair price for what you get.
Unlike the other devices in this list, Minix doesn’t have a big brand behind it, but it does have a pretty big following. This is because its video streaming devices are actually much more than that — they’re pretty powerful little computers with impressive specs and a plethora of connectors.
The company’s U9-H came out in 2017, but it’s still one of the best options for media streaming in Minix’s range. It’s got an octa-core, 64-bit, AmLogic S912 processor, a Mali-820 MP3 GPU, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. It’s also got a serious array of output connectors: HDMI 2.0, 3.5mm audio, optical audio, Gigabit Ethernet, and three USB 2.0 ports. Add to that a microSD card reader and you’ll see that adding some serious storage to this baby is no issue.
Its predecessor, Minix U1, had a pretty big software shortcoming, as it ran on now very dated Android 5 Lollipop. Minix U9-H remedied this by switching to the next version, Android 6 Marshmallow, which makes it a lot more future-proof.
If you opt for a Minix, know that setting things up isn’t as easy on most other streaming devices — for example, installing something as common as Netflix can be a chore. But if you know your way around Android, you should be fine.
The Minix Neo U9-H can be had on Amazon for $159.90.
Evanpo’s hexagonal box, the awkwardly named Evanpo T95Z Plus, probably offers the best bang for the buck in terms of sheer specs. It comes in several variants, and the most powerful one sports an octa-core processor (same one as the Minix U9-H), 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, Android 7.1, a remote, and a wireless keyboard — and you get all that for $104.99.
The T95Z Plus can play 4K videos at 60fps, which should result in a very smooth picture. It also has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, meaning you can connect all sorts of peripherals to it. And did we mention the wireless, full-sized keyboard? No more fidgeting five seconds per letter on a numerical keyboard.
On the connectivity side, you get two USB 2.0 ports, a HDMI port, optical port and a Gigabit Ethernet port.
The biggest downsides of Evanpo are that it’s a lesser-known brand and that sometimes, getting everything to work as you want might be a more complex than, say, plugging an Amazon stick into your TV. But you’ll be rewarded with a myriad options that very few devices on the market offer.
“The biggest question around MoviePass and its $10-per-month unlimited subscription has never been whether it’s a good deal. It’s whether—or how long—it can possibly last. But there’s another monthly moviegoing plan that has largely dodged those existential doubts. In fact, in some parts of the world, it even makes money. Imagine that.
That company is Sinemia, an awkwardly named subscription plan that launched in Istanbul in 2014, spread to the UK not long after, and touched down in the US just a few months ago. In broad strokes, it’s the same idea as MoviePass: Pay a monthly rate, get movie tickets. But the differences between the two matter, both for your own wallet and the future of moviegoing.
On the Cheap
MoviePass, as you likely know by now, lets you purchase one movie ticket, every day, for $10 per month. (It also now offers a plan with an iHeartRadio trial bundled in, but the action’s at the all-you-can-watch buffet.) For that same $10, Sinemia offers you … two movie tickets…”
“With so much controversy swirling around the advertising-driven business models typified by Facebook and Google, and the increasing rigors of regulations like GDPR, it’s no wonder the blockchain world is starting to whet its appetite at the prospect of paying users for attention with crypto assets.
Now a company involved in the production of Hollywood blockbusters featuring the likes of James Franco, Selena Gomez, Alec Baldwin, Heidi Klum and Al Pacino is backing a new startup to reward viewers in this manner.
Hollywood producer Andrea Iervolino (best known for backing the James Franco film “In Dubious Battle” based on the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck) has decided to enter the fray by launching a new blockchain platform called TaTaTu. The startup’s aim is to bring a social, crypto economy to the entertainment industry.
Iervolino says the platform allows users to get rewarded for the content they watch and share with others through the use of crypto tokens. Of course, whether it can actually pull that off remains to be seen. Many other startups are trying to play in this space. But where Iervolino might just have an edge is in his Hollywood connections.
The idea is that the TaTaTu token can also be used by advertisers to run their ads on the platform. Organizations will also be able to earn tokens by uploading content to the platform. The more content an organization brings to the platform, the more revenue they earn. TaTaTu aims to show ads to viewers and will even share advertising revenues with them in return for their attention.
But it doesn’t stop there. Users are supposed to invite their friends via their social media to join TaTaTu, and then watch and create videos that can be shared with friends, chat with other members and share the content they like. TaTaTu will give its users the possibility to be rewarded for their social entertainment activity. TaTaTu plans not only movies and videos, but also music, sports and…”