CENT Emmys could give VR the credibility it needs, one nominee says - CNET

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Emmy nominations for virtual reality experiences aren't just kudos for flashy tech. They also could serve as stepping stones to VR's popular acceptance.

So says Alex Henning, co-founder of Magnopus, a virtual- and augmented-reality company that helps firms like Disney bring their storytelling into interactive experiences. Magnopus's Coco VR and Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab experiences grabbed two of the five Emmy nominations for original interactive program. 

VR has been one of the buzziest categories in tech over the last several years, attracting eye-popping investments by giants like Facebook, Google and Samsung. But mainstream adoption hasn't matched the hype. People have been hesitant to pour hundreds of dollars into a souped-up computer and a high-end headset like Facebook's Oculus Rift when it isn't fully clear if experiences in VR are worth it.

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In Coco VR, you can dance on stage with Héctor in the Land of the Dead. Magnopus/Pixar

But Henning, like most people who've committed to VR and AR as the dawning of a new entertainment medium, believes that the wider world is still marching along a path to acceptance. 

"The fact that this category exists, in and of itself, is indicative of the creative community being really interested," he said of the interactive Emmys in an interview this month. "For this kind of thing to take off, it really requires a level of commitment and energy and enthusiasm from the industry and creative community, who are responsible for delivering a large portion of the entertainment that we all consume."

The interactive media categories are considered Primetime Emmy Awards but they aren't part of the glitz most people will watch Monday. Instead, the winners of the interactive categories were presented last weekend, and their ceremony will air Sunday evening on FXX. 

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Like those of Coco VR, the visuals of Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab tried to stay consistent with the style and tone of the film they're based on. Magnopus

Spolier: Magnopus' projects didn't win. The winner was NASA's first mission entered for an Emmy, a multifaceted media juggernaut centered on the spacecraft Cassini's final voyage to Saturn. But all of the nominations were either virtual-reality experiences or involved 360-degree videos you could view in a headset, and VR has won Emmys in past years. 

Henning discussed VR hype cycles, working minute by minute in virtual reality with Pixar and capturing real actors in three dimensions. The following is an edited Q&A. 

Q: How do you see the state of VR reflected in nominees this year? 
Henning: People's feelings towards VR specifically have been on a bit of a roller coaster. There's been a tremendous hype cycle. The outcome from that, depending on who you are and what your agenda is, could be mixed. 

But the fact that these bodies, the academies and the other guilds and organizations, are recognizing these efforts and these achievements -- I think that says a lot about the creative community's attitude towards this heightened experience, and it's very positive. That's really encouraging. 

But if you look at the nominees, both this year and last year, it's also very clear that we are still in the very early days of everyone figuring it out. 

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Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab involved volumetric capture of live actors so they could be re-created in three dimensions in VR. Magnopus

Why do you think Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab was recognized by the Emmys? Did anything on that project feel like it pushed the possibilities of immersive storytelling forward?
Henning: Blade Runner had a strong contribution to body-motion capture of real actors. That's something that the industry in general is really interested in from a lot of different angles, and I think that that is a really key component to expanding the appeal of immersive storytelling to broader audiences, too.

You're always going to be grappling with questions like, How can I make these stories connect more? How can I make them more relatable? And being able to put convincing real humans in them -- that can be a part of the immersion rather than something that might shake you out of it. 

Volumetric video [which captures moving images in three-dimensional space] is something that we are really proud of, but with that said, I think that we are just scratching the surface of what you can do. 

Pixar has been instrumental in the last 20 years marrying technology and filmmaking to create beloved stories. What was it like working on Pixar's first VR release? 
Henning: Our team was working directly with a team at Pixar in Emeryville [California], not just on a weekly or daily basis, but minute by minute. To us, it really did feel like being part of one large crew to work on the project. Being involved in Pixar's first real public foray into the space was a lot of responsibility, and we take it very, very seriously. 

One of my biggest takeaways doing Coco with Pixar was how powerful being together in a virtual space can be, not just from an end-user experience but as a collaborative tool creating the experience. For us and for Pixar, working together in VR was really a very important part of the process and I think it resulted in a much higher-quality end result.

Much as like with Blade Runner, we're just scratching the surface.

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