Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Simon Usborne gets immersed in a brave new world

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The Independent Tech

I'm surrounded by protesters on Nathan Road in Mong Kok, at the centre of the pro-democracy protests that have consumed Hong Kong. Turning to my left, I watch a roiling sea of umbrellas stretching into the distance. To my right, a line of riot police holds back a crowd, batons raised. Chanting fills my ears. Then I take off my headset and put it down on my desk, 6,000 miles from Hong Kong.

If the best news stories already immerse the reader, viewer or listener, a new generation of producers and storytellers are using cutting-edge technology to do it almost entirely. And this is the week in which immersive video appears to be coming of age, as some of the biggest names in film and tech reveal a head-spinning medium that uses virtual reality to teleport the viewer into real stories.

The headset is an Oculus Rift, the device that, while still in development, was bought by Facebook last summer in a deal worth $2bn. Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face, it also senses each tiny movement in your head, adjusting the view of whatever is being displayed in such a way that puts you into that world, be it a computer game or a recording of a real event.

In Hong Kong, as news crews jostled for position, Edward Miller worked alone, holding out six miniature GoPro cameras arranged in a cube at the end of a three-metre boom. Back at the offices of London-based startup Immersivly, software stitched those six streams of footage into a hollow sphere of video, placing the viewer's head at its centre. Using a normal computer screen, you can effectively scroll that sphere around you as the video plays. With a headset, you turn at will inside the sphere and the sense of immersion becomes dizzyingly complete.

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Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'

Immersivly's eight-minute news film, revealed last week, is cut in a traditional way, as a sequence of moving images with narration over the top. But the company's founder and chief executive, Louis Jebb, whose background is in newspapers, says that the added dimension offers something entirely new.

"You assume that you're witnessing a place, but Edward found, while editing the footage, that he got a sense of how much was going on that he didn't notice even when he was there," he says. "The younger people who have watched it also say they feel like they cared more about this event because they could look around."

Jebb and Miller have high-profile competition. At the Sundance Film Festival this week, Vice News revealed a similar film, shot last month at the Millions March against the killings of unarmed black men by US police officers. The film, directed by Spike Jonze, is made by Vrse, another new company in a buzzing field. "When we got the footage back and watched it on the goggles, I was so moved by what we had," Jonze said in a Vice press release. "I had this feeling of being very fortunate to be at the beginning of an entirely new storytelling medium."

Vrse is the brainchild of Chris Milk, a visionary American music video director who has called virtual reality (VR) the "next great canvas for human expression". His new tech was also on show at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Clouds Over Sidra, a film made for Oculus Rift and revealed by the United Nations, follows a 12-year-old girl through a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

When Mike Butcher, editor of the Techcrunch website, watched it, he cried into his headset, calling the film "one of the most vivid experiences of my life".

News is just one frontier in a would-be virtual revolution. Palmer Luckey, the 22-year-old inventor of Oculus Rift, demonstrated a prototype at Sundance in 2012, with a film shot inside a bread line in Los Angeles. He was just 19 and later that year demonstrated the device's potential to transform gaming. Two billion dollars later, the film festival in Utah has a whole VR section of 11 films. Werner Herzog and James Cameron are among those directors who have shown an interest and, on Monday, Oculus Rift launched Story Studio, a new unit run by former Pixar veterans that is exploring ways to change the way we watch – and experience – animated movies. In London, the BBC has been experimenting with VR for months.

The hardware is changing just as fast. Samsung has worked with Oculus to develop its own headset, and Vrse has also launched an app that works on smartphones, the newest of which already include advanced motion-sensing technology. Mount a phone in a headset cradle such as Google's Cardboard device, and you have a low-budget answer to the Oculus Rift, which isn't due to go on sale until later this year. The investment of tech giants should be sign enough that VR has become way more than the neck-breaking gimmick that briefly emerged in the 1990s. But while technology has caught up with our visual ambition, how far can it go?

"The aim is to make the viewer forget about the technology and think about the most compelling way to tell a story," Miller says. "But this is active storytelling, and active viewing and I'm not sure how long people can handle it."

After eight minutes in Hong Kong, I was ready to return to my own three dimensions and would dread the prospect of being immersed into a two-hour feature film lest "sim sickness" set in. Advances in technology will not only make immersive film easier to produce (it took Miller a week to stitch his footage), but also easier to watch. Yet Miller doubts anyone will want to view anything longer than about 10 minutes.

Jebb accepts these concerns, and warns that newsmakers also have a responsibility to use VR wisely, preserving basic journalistic practices and values. But the tech is already racing ahead. Microsoft is leading the development of holographic goggles which can place virtual elements into the real world in front of you, blurring the lines between the real and the computer-generated and the recorded and the live. "Eventually, you could have a news reporter in your sitting room, reporting live to you," he says.

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