Inside Digital Cave: Baltimore on the Brink of Virtual Reality

Posted on May 31, 2016 by Michael Shattuck

My brain tells me I’m on the edge of a rock formation hundreds of feet in the air—a sweeping green valley below me, a winding river stretched out far in the distance. To my left another climber sits on an outcropping, adjusting his footing. I also feel the VR headset resting on the bridge of my nose; I hear the voices of people around me. I try to tell my brain that if I step off of these rocks and into the air, I will simply be taking a step forward on the very solid floor of Digital Cave in Hampden.

It is late April, and I am at a meet-up for people exploring what the future of Virtual Reality and 360 filmmaking might bring us. There is a range of professional backgrounds here: filmmakers, engineers, drone hobbyists, software coders, and educators are all packing the show rooms of Digital Cave’s headquarters. The VR headset technology gives a completely new sort of media experience, and no one is exactly sure where things are headed. The meet-up is a chance to get the interested parties together and share their collective knowledge and questions.

There are distinct differences in the applications of VR and 360 filmmaking, though each of these technologies utilize a headset.

While watching a 360 film, you can look around in all directions, but remain seated in one place. In effect, the viewer maintains a kind of fly-on-the-wall perspective. This presents new artistic and creative questions.

Virtual Reality media also uses the 360-degree range of vision. With VR, however, there is the added component of the physical space in which a viewer can move around; the movement in real life will then correspond to their movement in the VR world before their eyes, whether that’s on an asteroid, in a gladiator arena, or atop a cliff. When the user gets too close to the limit of that physical space a grid appears, like the lines on walls of the Star Trek holodeck (or Troy and Abed’s Imaginarium from Community). A remote control like a Wii-remote lets you interact with the virtual objects.  

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“The goal of this meetup was to focus in on a specific topic in VR,” writes Greg Aring, a co-organizer of the event and a software developer. “Previous meetups were more generalized. We wanted people working in the VR-filmmaking industry to learn at least one new thing and meet others who are working with similar technology. From a filmmaking perspective, I am interested in how VR can evoke empathy through journalism and being able to see things from another person’s perspective.”

Hank Vohrer is the Creative Director at Percepto Studios in Mt. Vernon, and partnered with event co-organizer Balti Virtual. He writes, “The most interesting thing is simply seeing how people are using [virtual reality] and discussing all the possibilities. It’s been great to see so much interest by so many from a variety of backgrounds.”

The event has the vibe of a science fair but with a mini-fridge of beer. There is high energy chatter in each of the several rooms of Digital Cave. The place is packed. People are taking turns with the equipment, asking the staff questions. It’s interesting enough to hang back and absorb the knowledge being shared. It is a suitable atmosphere for a community that is endeavoring to grasp the outline of the map of a new digital landscape.

In one room is the Virtual Reality headset that sent me to the top of a mountain. In another, there’s a table with VR headsets loaded with videos shot in 360 degrees. They are free to pick up and check out, including a Samsung Gear VR and an Occulus Rift.

While the Occulus Rift is the most expensive of the lot, coming in at $600, there are a range of VR headsets at remarkably low prices. The Samsung Gear VR is $99, half of the price it was initially announced when launched. There are even 3rd party headsets available on Amazon for under $50. These headsets run on the more recent model smartphones.

Photographer Sanjay Seunarine noted, “The main plague of this technology for years was its complexity and high cost. A simple headset and the phone in your pocket is all you need to get an immersive experience. I used to think VR/360 was gimmicky but having seen the current capabilities of the technology I find it compelling.” 

Before I took my trip up the virtual mountain, I strapped into one of the devices to watch a 360 degree film. In this case it was a VR Gear headset, and this was my first time donning a pair. The first thing I noticed: my self-consciousness in wearing the large headset disappeared almost immediately as I navigated the floating menu in the domed virtual lobby. I used a button on the side of the viewer to select a range of videos to watch. Then, from a spot on the Harbor I watched crowds interact with the installations during Light City. In another I sat in the cockpit of a spaceship as it approached and descended into a crator of an asteriod.

I ask the developers how they created the content, and what they kept in mind as they coded.

“When it comes to creating content,” said Aring, “Maintaining user comfort is the biggest challenge. That means making sure your media is always rendering 90 frames per second. optimizing for great performance throughout is crucial to a good user experience.”

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Seunarine added, “The tools available for capturing the environments seem fairly user friendly but the final touch-ups seem like a vast undertaking to make truly believable to the user.”

There are efforts all over the country to develop ways to get the most out of this new VR technology. Balti-virtual and Digital Cave aim to make Baltimore a center for VR/360-filmmaking and host with more events.

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“The individualized experience is certainly a big piece of this,” writes Vohrer. “It’s rare to have a moment in time where you have the opportunity to jump onboard something that will ultimately reshape our digital realities, how we interact with each other and with content. We see the wave rising and have only begun to paddle towards shore.”

I leave the meet-up wondering several things: What’s next for VR? What will the Citizen Kane of VR be like? Wedged between rowhouses in Hampden, a collective vision is in the works.

Photos by Blair Hagan & Precepto Studios

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