The praying mantis looms large, towering over you and filling your field of view. It has its prey in sight – an unsuspecting Bombardier beetle. The menacing green insect twitches its arms, and closes in on the kill, but as it reaches the beetle, there’s a sudden explosion. The beetle emits a spray of boiling acid from its back end, and the cowed mantis retreats to nurse its wounds.
It’s a gripping, vibrant scene from the natural world, with the mandatory narration from David Attenborough, and forms part of a five part series called Micro Monsters that is coming free to Oculus virtual reality headsets from today. It’s in vivid colour and high resolution, and could be exactly the kind of content that is needed to finally help take VR mainstream.
VR has been the great hope of the tech industry for years now, but it has struggled to live up to the hype. Some early adopters have bought into the technology, and there are a small suite of video games catering to them – just over one in 100 Steam users own a VR headset, according to the latest figures released by the desktop gaming platform. But a combination of high prices and a lack of content have put the brakes on the industry. That could be about to change.
On October 13, Oculus – the Facebook owned VR hardware company – is releasing the Quest 2, its most affordable headset yet. It is a standalone ‘VR games console,’ and doesn’t require any additional hardware to play games or watch content. There is a compelling line up of games, including entries in the Medal of Honor and Assassin’s Creed franchises, and a game set in the Jurassic World universe. But the most important factor could be price. At £299, the Quest 2 will bring VR within reach for a lot more casual consumers.
All those new users will need something to watch, however, and until recently there’s been a lack of content for non-gamers, who will be a key audience if VR is to go truly mainstream. That’s why Micro Monsters takes a different approach to most VR experiences. Instead of building a full 360 degree world from computer graphics or special cameras, production company Alchemy Immersive used pre-existing real-world footage shot in high-resolution, and adapted it to VR.
The content was originally captured for a 2014 nature documentary series for television, which meant the production team had access to sharper images than can be captured by 360 or 180 degree cameras normally used for shooting content for VR.
The team had to figure out how to translate that square footage into a sphere for VR, which involved creating a new production pipeline, and working with visual effects artists, says Elliot Graves, director of Micro Monsters and creative technologist at Alchemy Immersive. “A huge amount of time and effort and also research and development made this piece possible,” he says. “There’s a whole package of technology that we worked with, and it’s something different to what we’ve seen.”
Although it’s not a full 360-degree experience – if you turn your head, there’s nothing behind you but darkness – Anthony Geffen, CEO and creative director of Alchemy Immersive’s parent company Atlantic Media, points out that people very rarely turn around and actually look behind them in VR. Graves thinks there’s a gap in the market for less immersive, less all-consuming VR – the kind of thing that you can enjoy but that doesn’t demand as much from you as a fully interactive game.
A lot of VR content doesn’t play to the strengths of the medium at the moment, Graves argues. “So much immersive content just replicates real life,” he says. “That’s great for games, but a 360 degree camera can’t produce the world the way our own eyes can see it. By shrinking you down to the size of a pin we can show you something you can’t see anywhere else.”
If VR is truly going to take off, it can’t just be based on first person games. A lot more content like Micro Monsters will be required in order to convince people that an investment in a VR headset is worth it, or the experiences need to be compelling enough to convince them to make a trip to a museum or cinema to take part there. We may see a similar trajectory to other ‘immersive’ technologies such as IMAX, which when they first launched were often confined to visually stunning nature documentaries, before later making the leap to a tool used by mainstream filmmakers (it wasn’t until 2008’s The Dark Knight that a mainstream movie release was shot on IMAX cameras, for instance).
Making VR content from scratch is difficult and expensive, but the Micro Monsters model offers a way for production companies to experiment with the medium using content that they may already own. Graves is hopeful that the project will also help encourage others in the industry to get involved in VR. “With the right forethought and planning it’s possible to take existing footage rather than make everything from scratch,” he says. “By showing this is a possibility, more people will start to do it.”
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
More great stories from WIRED
😷 Life is now one big risk assessment. Here are five life rules for staying safe during a pandemic
🚓 Seven years on GTA V still refuses to die
💻 Putting data centres at the bottom of the ocean might actually be a good idea
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.