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Being present in virtual reality

Ben Johnson and Levi Sharpe Jul 4, 2016
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Wikimedia Commons

One of the main rules of meditation is being present in the moment. The same goes for virtual reality. 

Felix & Paul Studios, a virtual reality startup, has created VR content for movies such as “Jurassic World” and “Wild,” as well as short documentaries such as Nomads,” which follows the lives of three nomadic families. Throughout their work, co-founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël said that they attempt to keep the viewer present in each scene.

“You can nurture a true sense of presence, a true sense of really fusing with the story, fusing with the character,” Lajeunesse said. “That’s really the art of virtual reality storytelling, to elicit that deep emotion inside of viewers.”

To elicit this sense of presence, where the camera is placed and what is included or excluded from view is an important consideration. In one of their most popular videos, which followed basketball player Lebron James in his pre-season training, Lajeunesse and Raphaël intentionally kept in a dark spot below the viewer where the camera was located. They could have easily patched the hole, making a complete 360-degree view, said Raphaël, but when they tried this it made the experience uncannier. 

“When we did that we kind of lost something,” he said. “If you can actually see through your body and look at the floor or an empty chair, you’re less present than if you actually keep this. It ends up looking like a drop shadow. It’s not your body, it’s not empty space, it’s kind of a convention that we’ve settled on for the time being as being the best way to maintain presence in a scene.”

The same goes for why the shots are taken from the view of average sitting height, rather than on the floor or next to the basketball hoop.

“Unlike in cinema where the camera can move all of the time and you hardly even notice. In VR it just completely transforms the nature of the experience,” Raphaël said. “It can very easily feel like an out-of-body experience, or it can work against presence, because you’re seeing something that your body isn’t actually doing.

Even with the added immersive experience, which virtual reality can provide, they don’t believe that the medium is at odds with current cinema. However, in the future, virtual reality may start seeping into all aspects of our daily lives, said Lajeunesse. 

“You can imagine that it’s going to be part of how we learn and how we communicate about things that are distant or abstract,” he said. “I think it’s just way beyond entertainment.”

Whether they plan on marketing the special camera they created to shoot their work is another story. Raphaël said that he is not opposed to selling the gear, but that they are more focused on creating content.

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