VR Visionaries #9: Ted Schilowitz, Futurist in Residence, Paramount Pictures

Ted is a Futurist in Residence at Paramount Pictures. He has spent much of his career within development laboratories; exploring and testing new technologies. Recent projects, while working with 20th Century Fox, include Alien Covenant: In Utero and The Martian VR Experience

As a Futurist, what does an average work day look like for you?

Essentially my job involves exploration every day. I ask the questions without knowing the answers. That’s an interesting way to describe what I do. At 20th Century Fox, I spent a lot of time in our various laboratories testing new experiences – spending a lot of time with VR and AR headsets, learning about what the medium is capable of and then bringing that back to the studio leadership to figure everything out. We’re in a ‘figure it out’ mode and what we were doing on the Fox side is putting a lot of learning into practice.

At 20th Century Fox, we launched something called the Fox Innovation Lab a few years ago, and we did a number of projects through that – the Wild project, the Martian project… they’re now embarking on a few other projects, a couple of things for Alien: Covenant just got released. Another one that they’re working on is for Planet of the Apes, and they have a couple of other unannounced titles.

That has all evolved just recently to a new division of the company called Fox Next. Here we have been experimenting with new types of storytelling, and that encompasses gaming, location based entertainment, virtual reality and essentially anything other than the traditional media forms that the rest of the studio tackles on a daily basis. Fox has seen some high profile VR experiences being produced - The Martian Experience and Alien Covenant: In Utero spring to mind immediately.

Do you see a future where VR could supplant the current movie-going experience?

Things tend to grow on top of each other, rather than one thing fully displacing another. There are many forms of entertainment and people are constantly learning and testing their own boundaries: what they want to have as part of their entertainment and productivity. I don’t think that new forms of media essentially completely get rid of older forms of media, they just sort of hybridize – they find their own way.

So would you say then that VR will continue to be a supplementary experience?

I wouldn’t quite say that either! I don’t believe that virtual reality and augmented reality are a supplement to our existing media and entertainment landscape. I actually think that it’s a new form of mainstream entertainment that is yet to truly hit the mainstream.

Eventually it will hold its place within the ecosystem, similar to how the thing that we call video gaming now, which has lots of different tentacles and goes in lots of different directions… we could spend hours talking about the space of what could be defined as a video game and how large and encompassing that is to many forms of entertainment, and it has taken a very important place within the media landscape. I think virtual reality and augmented reality are starting to take their place in the media landscape and will continue to grow.

Down at its core, we are creating a better way to visualize our entertainment. A better, what we call ‘a more realistic’, believable way than looking at a screen. With VR, you have a more advanced screen that can track your body; can track your eyes; can track your physical movements. So this is an evolution of the medium, and I think it will fit within the ecosystem as a very important part. It’s not going to be an ancillary part of the media.

Last year you publicly stated that current 360 degree cameras would not be successful in the long term. Have you seen volumetric capture becoming more prevalent?

The tools we use to create VR are certainly evolving. What’s funny with that statement I made is that you kind of put notches in your belt as a futurist – you try and see the direction that things are going and then sometimes when you’re on stage you make a prediction. I think what’s interesting is that now, just one year later, how many people are paying attention to my disruptive comment about the fact that the tools being used – from a camera standpoint – to create 360 degree video content won’t really carry us into the future.

At the last Facebook conference, F8, they announced their volumetric strategy and cameras that give the ability to move around in parallax. This is becoming a major discussion point, where a year ago it was pretty radical when I first mentioned it. There are a number of companies dancing around this – one that I’m heavily involved with called Hype VR. They’re doing literally walk-around volumetric video. We’re also experimenting a lot with the University of Southern California and Microsoft’s Light stage.

When you have a medium that is spatial – allowing you to move around in space for entertainment, productivity or whatever, then a flat spherical capture kit where you can only look around at something without the ability to move and react the way the real world reacts – that will be a problem. It’s nice and quite edifying to me to see that some of the big players like Facebook and Google are having a high awareness of this and starting to build the tools that will enable it to come to fruition.

How long do you think it will be before the current 360 degree cameras become obsolete?

I tend to be a very positive optimistic guy, so I wouldn’t use the word obsolete. I would just say that they will fall into a category that will be a little more from the past rather than the future. There will still be a use for them.

There’s still a use for taking a camera and capturing an event, especially when you need to turn that material around quickly or capture and broadcast a live event as it happens. There’s still some benefit to looking around at something, but it’s kind of a stop-gap to where we are headed – to actually be able to move around and look at something like we would in the real world. Those cameras will likely evolve into having some sort of spatial and volumetric capability once the technology develops to allow a faster turnaround and for it to be more cost effective.

We’re looking at a multi-year window; probably put a ten year lens on being able to move from just putting cameras around and looking at something versus putting cameras around and actually being in something. It may happen faster than that, but it will still be relatively exotic before it becomes a mainstream camera that everyone has and uses on a daily basis.

That timeline is something I’d be happy be proven wrong on this because, looking at how fast technology is curving in and, for some of the companies that I am involved in, how quickly they are accomplishing these goals.
When you’re tracking the future, things always tend to take a little longer than you think for what you envision to actually come to fruition. All you have to do is look at VR as a medium to understand the timeline of that.

How long will flatscreens continue to dominate the film and media landscape?

That’s a really good question. How long will we be comfortable using screens with what I call ‘restricted real estate’? It’s hard for me to put a timeline on that, but what I like to do when I discuss this is to ask people to remember a time when their work environment housed a giant CRT tube monitor. It weighed upwards of 120 pounds and had a physical presence almost as large as the desk it was sitting on. Remember that? Now look at your desk today – with likely a high resolution, at least 2K or probably 4K monitor, or your laptop screen or a multi-screen setup. How much more physical space do you have free now and how long did that take to transition?

Now look at your mobile environment with these smartphones that are really mobile robots today. We travel around with these little bits of high resolution restricted space, and we keep trying to bring them closer and closer to our face to make wider and wider fields of view out of it. 

If this technology became good enough that the illusion of your television experience or your work experience on a laptop could be truly virtualized: you could take it anywhere with you and it had almost no weight; where you had unrestricted space; where your screen could be as large or as small as you wanted; where you could have as many of them as you wanted in whatever configuration you wanted – what is it going to take to move to that?

The very secretive part of my life is that I get to see and test things first. Right now I’m conducting this interview with a super thin laptop, and I’m semi-mobile with it. In the future I’ll be able to wear this thing, and I’ll be able to walk around the world and handle this using advanced video. Ultimately the older stuff will get relegated further and further into the corners. There are still people that use CRT monitors – there just aren’t many of them!

What is the biggest challenge for VR in film today?

There are a myriad of challenges, but there are equally as many opportunities. What I see time and again are people that haven’t really given the time to understand the capabilities of the medium when they go in and try to create something. They tend to rely too much on their existing knowledge of what an experience should be, based on a flat screen world. They don’t really accomplish interesting goals from my point of view.
Where I see the most interest is with people who have tried to shed the past. Sure, they learn from the important things of the past. The one thing that will never go away is the importance of storytelling – the idea of understanding narrative and interactive narrative (which is notably different).

People who live a kind of blended life; where they love movies and love video games and understand the storytelling value of each of those mediums, those are the ones I always encourage to move into VR.
The greatest opportunity for people that are involved and are looking to get involved in this medium is to embrace change. Don’t be afraid to explore the edges of what this can be. Don’t be afraid to try and pull on the emotional heartstrings or the things that make people engage in entertainment. That is the most important part of this equation. The bigger risk you take, the more you can find out on the other side. Nowhere is that more true than in VR today.