Review: ‘Experience Japan’
Title: Experience Japan
Producer: Polygon Windows
Release: March, 2014
Platform: Mac/Windows Executable for Oculus Rift DK1/DK2 (~ 350 MB)
‘Experience Japan’ is a sentimental favourite around Worldview and it played a part in my switching on to 360 video in early 2014. In this modest production both technology and creative sensibility came together into something bedded down enough to feel like a ‘work’ rather than just another demo.
For just under two and a half minutes we are steered in unscripted fashion through a handful of Tokyo locations. With the video capture crafted to emulate the point of view of an adult moving about the landscape, we are invited into the same simple pleasure many of us dabble in when visiting a foreign city; just meandering about and getting a feel for the place.
Tracking smoothly at walking pace we descend an escalator to join a stream of commuters funnelling through a busy thoroughfare. Straight away we are delivered into a very ‘VR’ kind of moment – being part of a crowd rather than an observer. Personally, I got a tinge of that ‘yeah, I’m mixing it up with the locals’ rush that comes with first getting in the flow of a foreign metropolis.
Squeezing through a fish market makes plain how compact Tokyo interiors can be. The videos creator, Will McMasters, makes solid work of gliding his stabilised camera array past oncoming pedestrians while – as far as we can tell – managing not to trip over boxes of fish stacked at close range on either side.
Next stop is one of Japan’s renowned ‘cat café’s’ where patrons mingle with the inhabitant felines. One curious creature within purring distance presses it’s nose right up to our POV for an inquisitive sniff, perhaps invoking many a viewer to reach out to give a virtual pat.
Lastly it is night-time as we cross a canal toward towering neon signs. Fashionably dressed young adults moving about suggest Tokyo nightlife and I’ve noted with some amusement the direction in which many a heterosexual male tends to direct his gaze during this segment. Considering the head tracking function of VR headsets I wonder if we’ll one day see analytics around ‘virtual rubbernecking’!
(NB The below video shows the left/right eye channels as being interactively displayed to someone using an Oculus Rift headset)
‘Experience Japan’ has more of structure than the plethora of single location 360 videos available at the time of its release. Still, by ‘film making’ standards it is very simple treatment. There are no characters of note. No dialogue or voice over. Not much actually ‘happens’ and there is the barest of narrative arc to engage with … We are pretty much just moving about a few locations to a subtle mix of incidental sync sounds and floating musical tones.
Simple as it may be, the significance of Experience Japan lies in the steady hand of McMaster as both a film maker and technician.
McMasters chose a compelling location, deftly navigated the landscape with his stabilised camera array and made wise editorial choices about how to pull it all together into a piece hat has a gentle kind of charm to it. To me it seems to capture the strange mixture of industriousness and tranqulity that helps define the Japanese landscape. But beyond these conventional film-maker smarts, what enables his content to connect more fully with it’s audience was the way he applied himself as a pioneering practitioner to two inherent 360 video challenges– stitching and video playback.
At the time of release ‘Experience Japan’ just felt more geometrically true to life than anything else I could find. Something told me at a very deep level that what I saw was a plausible representation of things fill space. Naturally McMasters optimised framerates throughout his workflow to create a smooth sense of motion. Moreso, by doing a great job of stitching occasionally challenging footage without introducing a perceptible warping of the image and then making up a Unity based video playback executable with an apparently excellent projection characteristics, McMasters delivered a VR headset experience for DK1 that just felt … ‘true’. By rolling up his sleeves to reduce technical aberrations, he reduced the barrier – the distractions – standing between his audience and the immersive moments of Tokyo life he sought to share.
What McMasters managed to do in ‘Experience Japan’ was deftly play to some basic strengths of the medium while allowing himself to recede into the background.
He made it possible for Tokyo to be the hero.
Visuals: William Douglas McMaster
Programming: William Douglas McMaster
Sound/Music: Mike Ritchie