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Indian filmmakers are betting on virtual reality in a big way

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 28, 2016 16:57 IST
Meenakshi Iyer
Meenakshi Iyer
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Filmmakers across the world — especially from the indie scene — are keen to explore the possibilities of virtual reality (Photo:Satish Bate/HT )

I am standing in front of the massive iron gates of the centuries-old Trimbakeshwar Shiva temple, on the outskirts of Nashik, Maharashtra. Around me are hoards of angry women, trying to fight their way into the sanctum sanctorum. A mild scuffle breaks out as a bunch of men try to stop the women from entering the temple premises. My reflexes suggest that I duck and get somewhere safer.

I am part of this action. As a woman, I feel angry and disappointed. In a moment of frustration, my hand reaches out to push the door open, but that’s as far as I’ll get. Because, I’m in Bandra (not Nashik), experiencing this situation a few months past its occurrence with the help of a virtual reality headset strapped to my head. For five minutes, I was part of Right to Pray, a documentary shot in virtual reality format by director Khushboo Ranka. Set against the backdrop of the recent issue of patriarchy and conservative forces trying to stop women from entering temples, the film follows the journey of a women’s activist group.

Read: Augmented Reality: Pokémon Go is just the tip of the iceberg

Right to Pray is also one of the first narrative VR documentaries in the world, and was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, 2016. It may seem like a giant leap for visual storytelling. But, honestly, we’ve only scratched the surface.

A promotion 360 degree video for Phobia (2016) by Meraki (Photo courtesy: Meraki)

Evolution of VR

Until a few years ago, the use of virtual reality was limited to gaming. However, filmmakers across the world — especially from the indie scene — are keen to explore the possibilities that this immersive technology has to offer. Filmmaker Anand Gandhi (36), who shot to fame with his debut, Ship of Theseus (2013), has set up Memesys Culture Lab, a multi-crore project that will produce exclusive VR short films (just the initial investment was Rs 16 crore). Currently, it is working on several projects, including a film by Sooni Taraporevala (screenwriter, photographer) on ballet, and a documentary on Dalit protests in Gujarat by Nishtha Jain (she made the documentary, Gulabi Gang, 2012).

“VR has the power to take you inside the story. You could be sitting in Mumbai and taking a tour of Paris. You can experience the city, touch, and feel objects with haptic feedback. The possibilities are endless,” says Gandhi, who was also a part of a panel discussion on the future of VR filmmaking at the recently concluded MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Internationally too, virtual reality was a big talking point across film festivals such as Cannes and Tribeca this year.

Film enthusiasts enjoy a screening at Bombay Art Society in Bandra (Photo: Satish Bate/HT )

Gandhi is not the only one who’s recognised the power of virtual reality storytelling. Earlier this month, Mumbai witnessed the opening of India’s first virtual reality films centre at Bandra’s Bombay Art Society (yes, that futuristic building in Reclamation; kind of apt). Started by Pranav Asher of Enlighten Film Society, the centre will host screenings of VR films every Sunday.

Read:Google buys startup to push research in VR, AR

“We’ve made a series of short films called The Unnamed Guide, shot with 360-degree cameras across various locations in India,” says Asher. They will give audiences a tour of historic sites, along with narration by a local guide.

The future of VR

Though VR filmmaking (especially in India) at present seems limited to documentary-style cinema, it has opened up a whole new world of moviemaking. Unlike other technology, where India is often a few evolutionary stages behind the rest of the world, we are almost on a par when it comes to innovations in VR.

In the last two years, more than 10 start-ups — most of them funded by influential venture capitalists — have made inroads into VR in India. A recent Goldman Sachs report says the VR market will touch $30 billion (Rs 2,00,444 crore) by 2020. That’s less than four years from now. Right from Facebook’s $2 billion (Rs 13,359 crore) Oculus Rift purchase to the latest launch of Google’s Daydream VR headset, tech giants are already building the platform and the hardware. And there’s enough content being made to fuel this growth.

Take, for instance, Mumbai-based Meraki Virtual Reality Studio. Started in November, 2015, the company was founded by two IITians and a film director with the intention of making VR content across genres: events, corporate films, entertainment, and documentaries.

All the videos produced by Meraki are uploaded on YouTube, and can be viewed as 360-degree videos or in VR format. Similarly, Enlighten Film Society is working on an app where their VR content can only be viewed with VR headsets.

The limitations

“Even though the grammar of the VR medium is still being developed, there is a lot of content out there. It’s just that people are not aware of it. In India, VR is still thought of as an alien concept. People think they won’t understand it,” says Parth Choksi, co-founder, Meraki, explaining the low penetration of VR so far. In May this year, Samsung slashed the prices of its VR headset from Rs 8,200 to Rs 990 (when purchased with Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge).

While efforts are being made to break this assumption, it will take a few years for mainstream adoption. “Just like smartphones. People took time to accept it. And now you can’t imagine life without one,” adds Choksi.

Some of the most popular VR headsets are: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Sony’s Playstation VR and the latest from Google — Daydream VR (Photo: Satish Bate/HT )

VR 101: A beginner’s guide to virtual reality

1. What is VR?

In simple words, virtual reality or VR transports you to a world, which may or may not exist. For instance, finding yourself in the magical world of Harry Potter, where you have the power to see his world through the eyes of Harry Potter.

2. How are VR videos made?

A lot of VR films these days are shot with the help of Go-Pro cameras set up on a rig. The idea is to obtain a 360 degree view of one’s surroundings, then stitch the images together with the help of various software. This stitched output can then be edited just like any other video.

3. How to experience VR?

VR has the power to give you the most real experience of a video game, a virtual world, a real place, situation, or a story. To experience VR, you’ll need a headset, a PC, a gaming console or an app.

VR headsets: Some of the most popular VR headsets are: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Sony’s Playstation VR and the latest from Google — Daydream VR. These devices come with stereoscopic head-mounted display (which splits an image for each eye) and head motion tracking sensors. The cheapest VR headset is Google’s Cardboard.

Apps: For Google’s Cardboard, the Cardboard app is the easiest and cheapest way of watching VR films. Samsung’s VR gallery has some of the best and extensive VR content. Similarly, apps such as YouTube, VRSE and NYT VR are good apps to explore.

— Compiled by Meenakshi Iyer