Alongside Google’s recent announcement of their acquisition of Lytro, ‘Welcome to Light Fields’, an exploration piece on their experiments with their custom light-field camera rig and technology, is available for viewing. It can be viewed with PC mounted headsets (I downloaded it through SteamVR and used a HTC Vive) and well…it’s essential viewing.
Google have exploited a novel approach. Using sixteen GoPro cameras arranged on a semi-circular arc that rotates through a 70cm sphere approximately every sixty seconds, the environment and lighting conditions are captured in the environment. This allows the user to maneuver in this ‘sphere’ of rotation and experience motion parallax in the headset— the rays of light on the objects reacting to the movement of the users head.
Each frame captured in the rotation contains information that can precisely simulate the reflections, rays and refraction of the environment lighting conditions. First and foremost I have to express my admiration for the creative director (or location scout) behind the project for choosing a host of wonderful environments, all perfectly suited for the project, that enable the technology to be demonstrated with pure cinematic beauty while highlighting its technical strengths. From a standard living room littered with light beams to the inside of the Space Shuttle Discovery — every separate exploration is eye candy.
Throughout the guided tour, accompanied with an intuitive narration probing the user to focus on certain details in the scene such as the glint of a coffee mug, we are exposed to scene after scene of carefully curated environments.
From the shimmering and stunning tiles of a Venice Beach Mosaic Garden, dancing with color and crystal-ball reflections as you tilt your head left and right, to a quiet Church displaying the changes of sunlight piercing gigantic stained glass windows — it’s all courted to precision to show the value of having a moving light-field. In one instance the team of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum pose for a light field ‘photo’ (which involves staying perfectly still for the entire duration of the camera rotation). In another similar set-up, the founding husband-wife team behind the mosaic garden pose, making direct eye contact with the camera lenses as it rotates, allowing the user to experience the same phenomenon of the eyes in old paintings — following your movement. Impressive.
From a user experience standpoint the whole piece unfolds smoothly, hosting a guided tour and offering a self-selection of the individual scenes. I spent way longer than necessary in the cockpit of the Discovery which has never before been open to the public. The stereoscopic image quality of the scenes was fantastic, crisp and clear — this is primarily due to the fact that each scene is a still rather than a video and captured with a modified version of the Jump camera. The overcast and grey skies above the mosaic garden and the natural shadows of the house interiors gave a distinct impression that this was real-life, more so than I’ve experienced in other VR experiences. It allows for hints of true six degrees of freedom.
The feeling of presence here was quite mind blowing. The subtle light field addition moved the whole experience to the next level. The main question: is this the start of high quality virtual reality experiences?
When we consider the next steps for Virtual Reality the outlook suggests true six degrees of freedom, unrestrained movement in the scene, physical and haptic interaction with the environment and most of all: better content. Here’s hoping this is the start to at least two on that wish-list.
However there are many complicated angles to consider.