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Imagining the Future of VR at Google

The search giant’s filmmaker on what the new medium does that film cannot.
February 14, 2017

Jessica Brillhart is the principal filmmaker for virtual reality at Google, where she enjoys one of the most creative jobs in Silicon Valley. She makes VR experiences (including World Tour, the first film made with Google’s Jump system, a circular 16-camera rig designed to capture VR films) and conventional movies (or “flatties,” as she calls them), and she evaluates new VR technologies, such as Google’s own Cardboard, a cheap headset that works with smartphones. She spoke to MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, Jason Pontin.

What does the principal filmmaker for VR at Google do?

I see the technologies we’re building at Google, specifically in VR. And I ask what I can do with them creatively. I mediate between the ­engineers and creative people, and I make stuff in the process.

When did you first encounter virtual reality?

One day, I visited an engineering team that was building a 360° camera, and I saw their demos, and it was the stuff we’re used to now—musicians in 360 degrees—and I thought, “That’s kind of interesting.” But there was one demo that they were hesitant to show me because it was the first they ever filmed. It was of all the engineers in the office turning on the rig for the first time. And they were so happy! I just loved the goofy looks on their faces. At first they were just looking around. Like, “Is it working? We don’t know.” And then suddenly they were throwing their arms in the air. And you felt delighted because they were just so pleased that it worked. And I knew I had seen something that filmmaking had a really hard time doing. Probably could never do.

Can VR support a story with a through line?

I’m pretty harsh about this question, because I think emphasizing storytelling isn’t right. Storytelling is the product of film as a medium. In Man with a Movie Camera [1929], Dziga Vertov went out with a camera and filmed everyday stuff, and then he and his wife found a way to edit it together. And he wanted to dismiss all the film that came before him, because he thought it was just theater. Vertov’s idea was that the camera was a disembodied eye: a detached thing that could follow a horse, or be under a train, or throw you over a building. It can show a world previously unknown to you. But it’s ­Vertov’s perspective on the world.

With VR it’s about you being convinced that you’re physically in another space. VR is an embodied medium: creators are taking that detached eye and reattaching it to someone’s face. VR reminds us of the nuances of experiences, what connects people with each other, with places, with things in the real world. And that to me is the key to really understanding what kind of storytelling could even exist in a VR space.

Who is doing for VR what Gregg Toland, who invented the deep focus used in Citizen Kane, did for film?

From a cinematics standpoint, Felix & Paul are technically excellent. But if anyone is going to be remembered, it’s a kid from the Czech Republic named Tomáš Mariančík who created an experience called Sightline: The Chair. The idea is: the world evolves as you spin. So I'm looking at a sphere, and if I look away and look back, the sphere becomes a cube. And I’ll look back at the cube and it will be a building, and then a tree. Everything changes, everything evolves. The only way you can stop it is by not moving. But you can only do that for so long before you move a little bit, and on it goes. It’s kind of drug-like, where suddenly you get beyond your anxieties and you feel euphoric.

VR users often are curious about what they want to see—and resist what the creator intends them to see.

I love defiance. If I’m in a space and there’s a large red arrow pointing to a door, it’s awful. I don’t want to go there. I’ve gotten to know Rand and Robyn Miller, the co-creators of Myst. Robyn said he would go into every experience and see where the creator wanted him to look. But Robyn would inspect whatever he was meant to see and then turn in the opposite direction. He said you’d be shocked by how little there is there. And so I started doing that, too. I feel, “Don’t put me in a space and say I have to look where you want. That’s not how this new thing works.”

Is there a better way?

There’s a scene in an experience called Resonance where a young girl is playing violin, kind of poorly. That’s the whole scene, but if you turn around you can see her parents looking in at the doorway and you can hear her behind you playing badly, and you’re watching their reaction.

Do you try to be careful about what you make your visitors experience?

I look to gaming for a lot of clues. Most games won’t immediately throw you into the worst possible bit. No, they’ll say, “Here are some mushrooms and if you step on them they’ll die, and if you eat them you’ll grow.” And you progressively gain strength and get to the boss levels. I believe you have to create similar cadences in VR.

Will people use VR to record home videos?

Yes, but I’m still figuring out whether or not that’s a good thing. It might be overwhelming. Think of everything you forget about a birthday party when you’re a kid. But now the rig would capture everything. You could watch someone you loved respond the way she used to, or eat cake a certain way. It is going to be interesting to see what happens when we aren’t able to forget anything anymore.

Will VR supplant film?

My mom saw a piece I did for the first time. She came out of the experience and she said, “Oh my gosh. This is a brain thing.” Skeptical people come in and they say, “What you got?” They go into the experience and their jaw just drops. VR is its own medium. It’s not going to hurt any other medium. You’re going to see a lot of traditional-media folks trying to get it to work in their domain, and they may succeed in some ways, but in what ways I’m not sure. I don’t know. But something really special is happening.

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