By Jeffrey Rindskopf
It was in the ‘90s at a Dave and Buster’s arcade in Houston, where he was visiting family, that Fred Beahm first encountered virtual reality. The apparatus was a bulky, swiveling but otherwise stationary headset to explore the pixelated video game world programmed into the arcade game.
Beahm says, “I always remembered that because I thought, ‘One day, everyone’s going to have this.’”
Today Beahm is a film editor and the owner of Spliced Films. He’s among those working to bring virtual reality, or VR, to a wider audience than the medium has found so far — not as a programmer designing new headsets, but as a storyteller developing the short films we consume on them.
He began his filmmaking career early, making skate videos with high school friends. Before long, he was setting up shoots throughout the Pacific Northwest, producing and editing music videos, short films and eventually features. Beahm’s filmmaking career in Seattle primed him for the more intensive technical processes he would come to know in VR.
Of course, the technology has come a long way since Beahm first encountered it two decades ago. Today, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive offer high-quality VR experiences to anyone with a powerful gaming computer. Platforms like Samsung Gear and especially Google Cardboard are making the medium much more accessible for price-conscious buyers.
There’s even more on the horizon, including the release of Sony’s PS4-compatible platform in October, the rollout of Microsoft’s business-facing HoloLens and the buzz surrounding Google’s mysterious Magic Leap program.
“It’s good to see all of these popping up,” Beahm says. “The more competition in the game, the better it becomes.”
Much of the technological progress made in VR has centered on Seattle, where many of the leading platforms like Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive were at least partially developed. But Beahm was first exposed to the medium as a filmmaking tool after moving down to Los Angeles to further pursue the editing career he began in Seattle.
As VR moves beyond that swiveling arcade headset, it’s become more diversified, evolving from just another way to play video games into a multifaceted tool for design, education, communication and storytelling.
“It’s already been adopted by the film industry,” Beahm says. “The same things need to happen and sets need to run the same way, so I think people are adapting it fairly quickly.”
Shortly after making the move, Beahm and his filmmaking friends got their hands on the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (DK2), and in the next year, played every game and demo they could find to familiarize themselves with the medium before they used it to develop their own short film. Once again Beahm was discovering the unique potential of VR.
“The term that’s always thrown around is that it’s the ultimate empathy machine,” he says, “but I think it’s really about letting the user discover things, whether you want to guide them or just have them be in awe of their surroundings.”
The first VR film from Spliced was titled Real and clocked in at about 12 minutes. The self-financed film was shot with a homemade 180-degree stereoscopic camera rig that director Connor Hair made using some wood, a few Ikea brackets and two GoPro Hero4 cameras for point of view shots.
The post-production process for Real was lengthy but simple compared the 360-degree VR shorts Beahm has worked on since, wherein every shot must be treated like a special effects shot and stitched together from multiple cameras.
The finished short exists in two versions — one shot in 3D to be viewed on VR platforms, and the other in 2D so it could be submitted to film festivals that don’t yet accommodate VR shorts. Unlike the film industry that’s absorbed it, stories made for VR don’t yet have any clear path toward widespread distribution and are often simply shared from one person to another.
“The best way right now is probably YouTube 360,” Beahm says, “but there are new platforms emerging like Jaunt and Vrideo.”
As impressive as the recent leaps in technology have been, VR is still a medium in its infancy, without all the standardizations that exist in traditional film or television to help content creators navigate new challenges — like how to move a 360-degree camera without blocking the shot or how to cut between locations without jarring viewers. But those challenges are precisely what drew Beahm to the medium in the first place.
“It’s still the Wild West, and because it’s so new, everybody’s experimenting. That’s the coolest part about it,” he explains.
— Spliced Films (@spliced_films) January 19, 2016
There are at least a dozen ways VR experiences can still improve: more immersive 360 audio, better motion tracking, more powerful mobile platforms and higher resolution screens, to name a few. Nonetheless, most of the platforms are still only in their first generation, and the speed at which VR technology improves only seems to be accelerating.
“I think a lot of kids will have a VR headset on their Christmas list this year,” Beahm laughs.
Meanwhile, content creators like Beahm continue to find new ways to tell stories in VR, beginning with a series he’s editing alongside Lewis Smithingham of VR company 30 Ninjas and Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman. It will be among the first episodic stories created for VR, demonstrating there’s more to this medium than just 30 second videos of users standing somewhere.