Immersive Media: To the Holodeck and Beyond
Posted on 08/11/2016
The future demands of consumers and citizens are likely to be for greater immersion: highly interactive, film-like experiences that bring together moving image production, video game and cross-media technologies
Where is the entertainment industry heading? The first two decades of the internet have thrown up plenty of ideas, but we can also discern some drivers by taking a longer term perspective. So we know that, ever since the Lumiere brothers presented the first moving images more than a hundred years ago, audiences have craved entertainment experiences in greater clarity, detail and depth. This in turned has spurred such inventions as Technicolor, Dolby sound, green screen compositing, CGI and a post-production and special effects industry in which the UK is an acknowledged leader.
Given this, we can be confident that the future demands of consumers and citizens are likely to be for greater immersion: highly interactive, film-like experiences that bring together moving image production, video game and cross-media technologies. Of course, these will not simply be for entertainment purposes, with the potential for applications in education, culture, health and other domains.
But mapping consumer demand against industrial innovation is by no means straightforward: there is a range of technological, social and regulatory factors at work. As with many sectors and innovations, when it comes to thinking about the future, it is often helpful to draw on the ideas and inventions of science fiction. And when it comes to immersive entertainment, Star Trek has already provided us with its pre-eminent paradigm, in the form of the ‘holodeck’, the virtual reality facility on the Starship Enterprise. It was here that crew members could immerse themselves on distant planets and interact with aliens, without ever leaving their spacecraft.
The holodeck was an enclosed square room, much like a studio, but immersive entertainment systems will not necessarily be so confined. In fact, developments have already shown the potential for integrating systems into a variety of buildings, spaces and architectural features. Recent exhibitions at major museums and installations at the forthcoming Milan Expo are already providing immersive experiences that are not as prolonged or in-depth as that of a feature film: rather, they are using pixel walls and the facades and interiors of buildings to create distinct interactive moments as part of the wider attraction.
Producing immersive entertainment experiences will require a whole suite of tools and underpinning technologies: in computer vision, positional and spatial audio, smart content creation, compression and real time rendering. Other advances will be needed in capabilities outside the range of even the leading audio-visual production studios. These will include 3-D display, augmented reality, holography, surround sound and haptic technologies.
But 21st century storytelling will require not just enabling technologies, but also story tellers: professionals with expertise in interaction, human experience and story design to create content and experiences to be developed and consumed on these platforms. This in turn may necessitate new organisational structures, management systems and business models to enable innovations and the merging of technologies across films, games and media industries.
The development of immersive experiences will also need to be accompanied by a greater understanding of how it affects users. Star Trek fans may remember that the holodeck had its ‘holo-addicts’, crew members who became so absorbed in it that they were unable to return to the real world. We might be a long way before such fears are credible, but the consumption of increasingly visceral and life-like experiences will have far-reaching impacts, and research should ensure that they are delivered in a safe and healthy way for the benefit of citizens and society.
As all of this suggests, a coherent and ambitious research programme on immersive media is required. Innovate UK, working alongside the Knowledge Transfer Network, has already made substantial investment to support research and innovation in the creative sector. This has been particularly focused on the UK’s audio-visual industries and the production and special effects studios behind some of the world’s most successful films and television shows.
This work will continue, with scoping activities and industry events on immersive media helping to inform Innovate UK investment, and to build up a body of expertise, knowledge and insight in which innovation can flourish. This includes collaborating with partners across Europe and beyond who are jointly working on the platforms and standards that immersive systems will be delivered through. The holodeck may still be some years off, but as the media and entertainment sector evolves, the KTN will help provide the leadership the UK requires to continue to be at the forefront.