Edwin Rogers has seen the future of video, and it’s immersive. Unlike traditional video that is framed within a rectangle—which requires the photographer to “edit” information out of the full picture—360-degree video provides a full, “unedited” picture that allows the viewer to see the entirety of an experience. With the growth of 5G and super high-res video, the streaming capabilities are as close to real life as possible.
As the technology continues to evolve and improve, Edwin sees a further blurring of the lines between the real world and the digital world. Immersion into one or the other could soon be as simple as the “dimming” of a pair of transitional lenses.
Edwin Rogers is the Founder of VRVideo.tv.
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Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
[Todd] Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content—its creation, management, and distribution—by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The Future of Content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. We design and develop digital content solutions that get results. Today, I’m joined by Edwin Rogers from VRVideo.tv and we’re going to be talking about immersive content, 360-degree video, and virtual production. Welcome to The Future of Content, Edwin.
[Edwin] Hello. Thank you for having me.
[Todd] Absolutely. So what is 360 video, and how is it different from VR?
[Edwin] Okay, so, again, my name is Edwin Rogers, and I have been doing 360 video for about eight years. And 360 video, for me, it’s another toolkit in the filmmaker’s handbag. But the beauty of 360 video and what makes it really unique is that inside of a headset, you can experience the video as if you’re actually there where it was recorded. That has its advantages and disadvantages. But what makes it different from VR is that virtual reality can be created inside of a game engine. And, like a game, you can run, you can jump, you can move around. But 360 video is more like a film. You can’t tell Spider-Man to turn left when he’s turning right. You can’t move in any direction that you want. You have to follow the flow of the film and follow the flow of the filmmaker. And that’s the main difference. It’s more of a 3-degrees-of-separation kind of experience, instead of 6 degrees, which is up, down, forward, backward. You just kind of can look around in every direction and choose what you’re focusing on.
[Todd] So in other words, 360 video is as if you’re standing in a place looking around, whereas VR is usually— You’re moving around a place that is artificially constructed.
[Edwin] True. And you can also manipulate the world around you. So let’s say there is a digital item that you need to pick up, like a gold coin. You can pick that gold coin up, put it in your pocket inside of a VR experience, while a 360 video experience is more like a film, but it surrounds you. So the way I like to look at it is that, basically, inside of a 360 video you see in front—not just 180 degrees like your vision allows—but 360 video. So it gives you eyes in the back of your head.
[Todd] Got it. And so this is something that you’ve used for journalism. You’ve done this for journalism outlets, news outlets, in the past, right?
[Edwin] Yes. So, primarily, I’ve worked with NBC News for the past four years as an immersive journalist specifically trying to tell and craft stories that are captured using this new technology, using 360 cameras. As well as, there are other elements of immersive journalism and immersive storytelling that you can use that is outside of VR, but maybe using AR, which stands for augmented reality. So you can digitally impose information in front of a screen, instead of completely making the world around you opaque. So that’s the main difference between VR and AR. When you’re in an AR experience or you’re looking at an AR experience, you could be seeing, through your phone, a digital world, while in a VR experience, all you see is the world that’s created for you.
[Todd] It’s fully occluded. It’s fully immersive.
[Edwin] Fully immersed.
[Todd] Whatever’s happening to you in actual space and time and all of that ceases to exist and you’ve entered this new world.
[Edwin] Yeah. So it’s just a matter of transparency and I think that in the future, VR headsets are going to be mixed reality. So you’re going to have glasses that are like— They’re like those transition lenses, and they’ll transition into a completely dark environment that’s completely digital, taking you somewhere else. But then they will turn clear, and then impose digital images in front of you.
[Todd] Let’s go back to immersive journalism for a second. So thinking about how NBC News or other well-known, relatively mainstream news outlets are using immersive video, 360 video, what are the pros and cons of a 360 video format when applied to journalism?
[Edwin] Yeah. So I’ve been really hopeful that more news outlets will look at immersive journalism as a very important and powerful tool. But right now, only a few of you are really using it in a serious way, I would say. New York Times was the first one to really get started with that when they were doing daily stories inside of 360 video. But one of the things about 360 video that is a challenge is that you can’t force perspective. Because everything is a wide shot. One of the first terms for it was called panoramic video because there’s no closeups. You can’t force a person to look in a certain place. Also, a couple of other challenges for the format is that movement can actually cause motion sickness for some people. So you have to be really subtle in the movements and subtle in the [inaudible]. If you’re watching a traditional video and it’s like MTV, things can be cut and you can be all over the place, and it doesn’t bother you.
[Todd] Right. Because it’s not filling your full view. It’s not messing with your sense of— Well, what’s the word? I mean, like balance, essentially, right? It can cause vertigo because suddenly now you’re pointed downward. You’re looking upward. And because it’s fully immersive, yet there’s no stable frame. There’s no frame of the screen to remind you, “Oh, I’m just looking into another world.” It feels like you’re actually there, and that you’re being propelled forward magically without walking or something, right?
[Edwin] It’s one of those VR experiences when I was first learning 360 video, and I downloaded the software to do the stitching, and one of the demo downloads was a balloon ride video, and you’re up like a hundred feet in the air. And I remember when I first put on the headset, and I looked down. My mind was like, “I’m going down.” This is like— If you’re looking at this vantage point right here, which is a hundred feet in the air and nothing below, you’re in big trouble. So I had to really— It was really jarring to tell myself, “No, what I’m seeing, what is in front of me, is not real.” But for some people, I stopped [laughter] [inaudible], probably I showed it to this lady. She was just like, “Ahhh!” [laughter] And she had a fear of heights, and that’s not nice. It just shocks somebody into— it’s like putting them on the top of a cliff. And so, a lot of the experimental videos and even VR experiences that I had, are kind of rope, tight rope walking safely [laughter]. For some people, it’s not fun. It’s like a roller coaster.
[Todd] I’ve played that one VR game where—I forget what it’s called, but it’s got “elevators” in the title—and you get into an elevator, and then the elevator doors open. And there’s just a plank of wood that you walk on [laughter], and you can very easily fall off. And I immediately noped out of that game [laughter]. I saw that the doors open, and I looked down, and like you want me to balance on a plank on a hundred-story building? No way. And I can only imagine what it would feel or look like to fall off of a building. No, thank you. So what’s interesting to me about immersive journalism and the idea of— Because this is taking photojournalism or documentary filmmaking kind of journalism. It’s raising some interesting, philosophical, ethical, professional questions about the use of this medium in this tool. And by that, I mean anything we create whether it’s intended to reflect truth or it’s intended to contain emotional truth or be entirely fictional, contains a degree of editing. There are things that you leave in and things that you take out. And if you think about photography— So you have a camera. People make fun of Instagram social network people for doing this kind of thing, this kind of thing all the time, where all you see in the photo is what’s within the frame of the lens or the shot. And who knows what’s going on outside, right? Who knows what mayhem or whatever is happening. When you’re a photojournalist, there is editing that takes place not only when you take the photo, but then when you go back— And there’s also editing that’s even more subtle than framing. It’s contrast and lighting, and all of that conveys different kinds of emotional truths and literal truths and all of this. You then go edit the photo. There’s usually additional cropping and other image manipulation to make it ready for the right medium, whether it’s a digital screen, or print, or something. For 360 video, because you don’t have the rectangle of the viewfinder, you don’t have the— I forget the phrase that you use. But you can’t guide the eye.
[Edwin] Well, it’s really a rectangle inside of a sphere, right? Your field of view is still a rectangle, but it’s a rectangle that’s not constrained. So when you turn your head to the left or the right, you can still see what’s there.
[Todd] Oh, I see.
[Edwin] There’s more information that’s happening behind you, and that’s how I look at it. But I think of it as an evolutionary step if you look at more of all-eye—180 eyes. And then there’s animals that can actually see beyond—where they have more eyes and they can see—that’s actually a better feature in nature. So I view it as an evolutionary step in the motion photography system. You can eventually crop it and turn it into a video of something that you shot in 360. But! One of the most stark photojournalism examples, and it’s still going on, this president bragging about the inaugural parade. I was fortunate to watch NBC News to be able to—
[Todd] The size of the crowds and stuff like that.
[Edwin] Exactly. It’s a crowd size argument. And obviously, you can take a telephoto lens and shoot a certain corner and make it look like it actually is, crowded. Or you can turn that lens a little bit and make it look like, “Wow. This place is completely empty.” But what I couldn’t do was that. I could only show you exactly what was happening, which to me, just kind of looked like a little league team could fill out this arena a lot more than the president. So what I’m saying is the unbiased truth, right, is what you see with your eyes. And if you want to say, “This is a crowd to me,” you could call it whatever you want. The truth is there.
[Todd] Right. Because you’re seeing the full picture. And you have the ability to look at one section of the stadium or the crowd or another section of the bleachers and make up your own mind in total whether you feel like that’s a big crowd or not.
[Edwin] And then on the next day, I shot the Women’s March. I was 10 feet from the stage at the first Women’s March, which, at the time, was not really a big deal. Everything in the news was about the inauguration. Nobody was talking about the Women’s March. And then, I did a live stream from the Women’s March of a 360 video directly to Facebook. It got 3.5 million views that day.
[Edwin] And even the 360 camera couldn’t capture the full crowd size. So the stark contrast from one day, I couldn’t make that seem empty, just like I can’t— You could call it biased or whatever, I let it run for three hours straight. So I’m not editing only a certain part or only a— And I view that as more than just journalism but historical capture. If I was a historian maybe 50 years in the future wanting to know what it was like to stand next to the stage, well, I mean, I could watch the pundits’ televised version, or I could literally stand, look around at the people who’re crying, clapping, in the sun.
[Todd] As if you’re standing in the crowd just like anybody else.
[Edwin] And that’s where I think it is unique. And so, what I’m super excited about is 5G technology allowing for 8K and 12K, 360, 3D stereoscopic video to be live streamed. So you can’t really manipulate in a headset or without a headset on a phone, or a computer, or a tablet. Anyone could look into another place and time. But what is absolutely very, very unique about 360 video is that— Especially when you’re looking at it live. And I’ve also developed technology that allows you to have a back-and-forth conversation inside of a 360 in real time. That experience is like being in two different places at once. There is nothing I can have ever experienced—and I’ve experienced a lot—VR demos, lots of VR experiences, lots of rides. But there’s something about not talking to an avatar, but literally talking to another human being and being in a room in China while you’re sitting in your living room. I enjoy the ability to be transported to another place and time instantly, and without the barriers like the blinders or the windows that we have in place with Zoom. I would like to be sitting in your room right now with you. So what I did was I took, at a VR hackathon, I used web technology, web-based technology to create this app. It’s called the Immersful. So if you go to immersful.com—and that is spelled the way it sounds—that’s what I built. And what I did was, since it’s web based, I could use my phone and then take a plastic VR headset with my phone or you can use, at the time, the Oculus connected— Sorry, the Oculus headset connected to your phone. So you could just take it and then look around, and have a Zoom call looking around inside of the other office. But the phone call, it’s like I’m having a phone call and looking around at the other location. Now, it is only one-way. So that means that only one— The person with the 360 camera in the conference room can be broadcasting the 360. But hundreds of people can be there. And so, I think that’s now that COVID has caused so many problems, and you know Zoom is not perfect, but it works. I think the next level would be to experience a concert but not from your home and just be— Beyonce’s dancing right next to you. You cannot experience that. Also, if you go to my website VRVideo.tv, you’ll see 360 videos where I shot almost 12 Broadway shows. And Broadway is closed now. Right now, if you want to see a Broadway show, you can’t. But I was able to shoot one song, full dress rehearsal of shows like Anastasia, Beetlejuice, Come from Away. All these shows and put the camera on the stage. Oklahoma. And no matter how many tickets you buy, you’re never going to actually be experiencing the show on the stage. But with 360 immersive content, you can. And so it’s very, very powerful and it just needs to be utilized in smart ways.
[Todd] Well, let’s take a short break. And when we return, we’ll continue talking with Edwin about how the pandemic has affected content and what opportunities that might provide for immersive content.
[Voiceover] Hey, everyone. We’ll get back to the episode in a moment. But real quick, I wanted to tell you about Four Kitchens. You probably know that Four Kitchens makes websites. But we do so much more than that. Our team of Web Chefs can help you make better use of your content, scale your web team, and create world-class digital experiences. Most importantly, we get results. To find out more about how Four Kitchens can help, visit us at fourkitchens.com. Now, back to the episode.
[Todd] Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Edwin Rogers, founder of VRVideo.tv and a 360 video specialist. So when we left off, we were talking about the pandemic and how that has impacted some content production and content experiences. You can’t really go to a— You can’t go to a Broadway show, and you can’t go to a concert anymore. Sports are, well, I guess they’re happening, kind of. So I’d love to hear where you feel there are opportunities for virtual reality, 360 video, immersive content in this new world where we are so limited by the number of people we can be around, if any.
[Edwin] Yeah, I think that the pandemic has actually turned the new normal and made virtual reality the new normal. A lot of the times I was pitching—pre-COVID—all of these immersive experiences and people are like, “Wow, why would it be necessary? Or why would you need it?” And now, I think people are trying to experiment more because right now, you mentioned sports. But a lot of the time, you look at these major league sporting events, and they look empty. Why? Because you have to put TV screens to kind of simulate Zoom fans or they have these people that are just cardboard fans.
[Todd] The cardboard cutouts. Yeah.
[Edwin] It’s just eerie. [laughter] And I think that there’s way better ways of going about doing that. I think that the NBA, for example, has been experimenting, pre-COVID, with having 360 video of the playoffs and a lot of the games and putting 360 cameras on the field in order to get some exclusive access ticket that puts you right on the stage. I think that it is much better served in more intimate sports than large field sports because of the nature of the panoramic lenses inside of a 360 video. So I’ve done boxing for example, four in all of the corners, and that— Imagine being able to cut back and forth, look around, and see the match from all different angles. I think that is really where the direction should go as far as sports. And also conferences, we discussed how can we make conferences more immersive, more interactive. Keynote speeches where you feel like you’re close to the presenters and close to the stage but then my focus right now has been concerts. I think live music is not coming back tomorrow. Bars and restaurants? Restaurants, yes, but when you’re talking about a large concert with thousands of people all around, that’s going to be very difficult in social distancing and it’s going to be— I don’t think as much fun. But I think that we can use virtual reality and virtual production technology to make the concert experience even better than it is and hold millions of people instead of 100,000 people. So video games like Fortnite are experimenting with that. They had a concert. They were one of the first to do an experiment with this with Travis Scott. And The Weeknd did a video on TikTok. I’m going with a different approach which just focuses more on 360 videos so that the performer is not some avatar that is being motion captured and is just like a digital entity but more of a real concert experience where the viewers are the avatars and they can walk around the stage and all around and interact with each other. That’s where I think it could be really powerful.
[Todd] Speaking of content production, you had mentioned something earlier about virtual production. What is virtual production and how is that different from how things are currently made in terms of video content?
[Edwin] Virtual production is a technique. It’s like a magic trick that has been in the movies for a long time. We all know that green screens are what all of these Star Wars— Not, yeah, Star Wars, too, but superhero movies are shot behind green screens and then all these digital effects are added later. But now, people are replacing the green screens and using LED walls. Why would they do that? Because behind them, the actor can not just imagine that there is an alien world or a starship coming down. They could actually see it on the screen and the camera angle can turn and track the parallax movement. So when you move the camera the objects that are closer to you don’t move as quickly as items behind you. And that effect can happen using game engine technology and off-the-shelf gaming computers because the amount of processing power that it takes has gone down drastically, and the technology is expanding so fast.
[Todd] So just to clarify what that looks like, though, so imagine a— I guess you’d start by imagining a green screen where you have an actor standing in front of a literal green screen. And later, at some point, somebody is taking out the green coloring. And they’re putting in a digital background that puts them on an alien planet, or inside an office, or whatever. What people are now moving towards is they get rid of the green screen, and they have basically a giant TV behind them that has that alien world actively being projected so that the actor feels like, “Oh, I’m actually in this alien world. I’m surrounded by it.” And when the camera moves, there’s a little bit of computer trickery that happens with that screen behind there to make it look like it’s properly fixed in space.
[Edwin] Exactly. And one of the— For Mandalorian, which is a Disney+ show—Baby Yoda [laughter]—that show, they really took that to the next level. And they have a whole— They have, I think, 230-degree entire dome that is all LED walls. And what that allows for is the lighting to be reflected on all the surfaces. Instead of having lights light the subject, the actual LED walls actually light the subject and whatever. And because the environment is inside of a game engine, you could shoot a 10-hour dawn. So instead of waiting that five minutes for that beautiful golden sunshine shot and hope the actor didn’t mess up the line, and then we have to do it again tomorrow [laughter], no, you can get take after take after take after take of a sunrise or a sunset. And then, change the set a little bit and be on the top of a mountain. That is so powerful for production, but it might seem like something that you need to be Lucasfilm or Star Wars to create this kind of content. No. All you need is basic game engine mechanics, and you can put an artist, a music artist, Beyoncé, Daisy, whoever it is, singing and dancing in front of a LED wall. And then they can have a tour in New York, and then the background turns into Japan. And the background turns into London the next day. They’ve got a world tour from their living room. That is possible.
[Todd] Wow. Okay. First of all, you can’t tell with Mandalorian that they’re using any of this technology. It looks fantastic.
[Edwin] No, they’re so [crosstalk] beautiful [laughter].
[Todd] They nail it. I thought they were using all practical effects. I didn’t realize that until you— Obviously, Baby Yoda, there’s some practical, some digital going on there. There’s a mix. There was a whole thing about them, demanding that it be an actual puppet as opposed to just CGI and all that. But it’s incredible to think that all of the sets, right, all the sets are done digitally.
[Edwin] Not all. So most of them. And there were some things when there’s firefights where it’s too dangerous to shoot and have exploding.
[Todd] In front of expensive LED walls [laughter]. Yeah.
[Edwin] So there were some sets that were actual sets. But, no, there’s some scenes—beautiful indoor scenes—that the only thing that was real was the table.
[Todd] Oh, that’s incredible. Okay, well, last question. So, immersive content. This is something like— I’ve just been so fascinated with VR and AR for a long time. And in the previous season of Future of Content, we talked with somebody who was working with VR and training, and things like that. And as excited as I am about VR and AR, it’s felt to me like it just hasn’t quite— It’s not in everybody’s pocket yet. It’s not on everybody’s face. It’s not in everybody’s living room. What do you think is the killer app that is going to make immersive content or immersive technology as indispensable to us as a television or a phone or a laptop?
[Edwin] Yeah. So I think that immersive content has to be quality content first. Right? So I don’t think it’s just the killer app problem, I think it’s more. Since COVID, headsets are actually sold out. They can’t produce them fast enough for the demand. The Oculus Quest is now $300. So the price point isn’t even the problem.
[Todd] Wow. And that’s fully contained. Right?
[Edwin] Yeah. You don’t need a computer. You don’t need a computer. It is completely contained, and it’s $300. I think that what’s going to be the evolution of this technology is a pair of glasses that have transparency and that become opaque, and then you’re completely inundated in the digital world, and then clear it up, and now you see an augmented digital experience.
[Todd] So it would be a wearable. Your watch becomes a wearable— That’s like a permanent wearable. Yeah.
[Edwin] No. It’ll be like the glasses of— Thin glasses that can— You can add a clip and make it completely not see-through, or it will be transparent. I think that’s going to happen in the future. But as far as the killer app is concerned, I think a lot about making sure that whatever I’m working on is accessible to people that wouldn’t be able to afford a $1,500 amazing headset. And progressive enhancement is important to me. That’s why when I created Immersful. I started with web technology first so that you can use it on your phone, you can use it on your— regardless of even if you have a 360 camera, it’ll still work as a Zoom app. But if you add a 360 camera, then it becomes an immersive tool. And if you add a 360 headset, then you have a more engaging experience. But it works regardless of what tools you use.
[Todd] Works no matter what. Or you can just hold up your phone and spin around in a circle and look at stuff as if the phone’s—
[Edwin] Or just move, manipulate it with your thumb, and just kind of turn everything around. Some people don’t like moving the device; they like to move their finger instead. And so that, I think, is the focus that I take. I don’t start headset-first, I start mobile-first. One, because there’s billions of mobile devices—
[Todd] Yeah. We’ve already got them.
[Edwin] —And millions of headsets. And so I want more people to be able to experience my work. So that’s been the direction that I’ve gone.
[Todd] Got it. Well, thank you, Edwin, so much for joining us today. I hope everyone learned just as much as I did. And I can’t wait to see the content that you create next.
[Edwin] You can see it. Follow me on VRVideo.tv. I have regular airs of episodes and there’s going to be more immersive episodes coming.
[Todd] Excellent. Thank you so much, Edwin. And to everybody listening, if you have some interesting content, feel free to send it my way via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also reach out to me @FoCpodcast on Twitter. To find out more about Four Kitchens and how we solve complex content problems, please visit fourkitchens.com. And finally, make sure to search for The Future of Content in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts—anywhere quality podcasts are found. And click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until next time, keep creating content.