Hong Kong's 360-degree videomaking pioneers, and how the virtual-reality technology works
Tech that lets user choose viewing angle has been adopted by property agents, music stars such as Edison Chen and HKU's medical school
Long before YouTube started supporting 360-degree videos in March, Lai Kwok-chi had been experimenting with the technology for his property developer clients who wanted to present their show flats digitally online - albeit with varying degrees of success. The virtual reality environment, he knew even then, has an enormous appeal to users.
By stitching multiple video sources filmed simultaneously into a spherical video, viewers no longer have to follow the one-directional point of view of the videographer but can choose wherever and whatever they want to look at by simply dragging the video in any direction, or by tilting their portable device. More impressive still, wearing a VR headset can give viewers the illusion of being at the filmed location.
Application of this technology has proliferated in recent months, notably in the entertainment industry. Fatballslim Productions claims it recently released Hong Kong's first "360-degree virtual reality music video" for Charmaine Fong Ho-man's track Dry Tears.
"I'm sick of those cookie-cutter music videos that everyone is so bored of. I always try to find new ways to surprise my audience and I love trying new things," says Ball Li, founder and film director of the seven-year-old company.
Creative director TwoFive Yeung shares Li's ambition: "The idea is for Charmaine to run around a lot so viewers have to keep looking for her on the screen," he says. "We're aware of how short viewers' attention spans are nowadays, so we hope it can capture their interest and prolong the time they spend on the music video."
Last week also saw the release of a 360-degree music video for Edison Chen, Chef and MC Yan's song, Alien Girl, from their latest album 3 Corners II. And Apple made its first foray into the field of immersive technology in May with U2's video for Song for Someone, which is available on the Vrse app.
WATCH: A 360-degree music video from Bosepark Productions
Lai says he has struck on the ideal way to create these immersive and interactive videos, by combining GoPro cameras with high-quality fish-eye lenses.
"GoPro is designed for active sports filming and it films wide-angle footage, meaning these are rectangular sources," says the 37-year-old avid photographer and founder of video services company iZugar Studio. "So when you bend them in an attempt to create full spherical videos, there will be distortion in the process of stitching. That's why we focused on developing high-quality fish-eye lenses.
"A low-quality fish-eye lens can only capture about 20 to 30 per cent of an image clearly - the centre is clear, but everything on the edges will be blurred. And the colour always gets sparser," says Lai. "I did a lot of research on optics before I came up with ours, which has very concise colours throughout."
After four years and many prototypes, Lai's latest consumer kit requires only two GoPro cameras fitted with fish-eye lenses for 194-degree coverage. Lightweight and easy to use, it has become very popular. Attendees at the IVRPA 360-degree Virtual Reality Panoramic Photography and Video Conference in Prague in June were amazed at the technology. Many companies bought products from iZugar to use at next year's Rio Olympics.
While the pornographic film industry also finds the technology useful ("I can't control what my clients use my products for," Lai says), he and a growing number of professionals in the field say the technology is no longer a mere commercial gimmick.
For example, Lai has been working with the University of Hong Kong's medical school to create realistic multimedia content for scenario training. The dome-shaped structure built at its Wong Chuk Hang complex is used to simulate emergency situations in which students can be psychologically assessed and trained in disaster management.
A European aviation school has also been employing the technology to train students as an alternative to using costly simulators.
Louis Jebb, founder and chief executive of virtual reality news platform Immersively, says 360-degree video technology "could be used to give people an immediate feel for a story - the sense of being present - and to put people at the heart of a performance or presentation".
WATCH: A 360-degree video from Immersively
"When Facebook bought the VR headset maker Oculus Rift for more than US$2 billion in April 2014 we realised that software and hardware in VR - whether computer-generated graphics or 360-degree video - were making giant leaps and that we could use VR news to provide the final element of a truly immersive journalism," says Jebb, a former journalist for The Independent.
Founded in April 2014, Immersively has experimented with the technology in several projects such as an interactive art gallery and a short video that features a scene from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where "users feel they are at the heart of the action, side by side with the actors", says Jebb. In January, Immersively released a VR documentary on the umbrella movement titled Hong Kong Unrest.
"For editors and reporters, 360-degree video presents a great opportunity to create a greater empathy between subject and viewers, in particular for stories - political protest, natural disasters, special creativity - where distance or otherness have caused viewers not to care," says Jebb.
He hopes to attract those who have grown tired of mainstream news and believes 360-degree video will change the media landscape because it's more trustworthy.
"The traditional editor will lose the final cut, the final 'manipulation', that has allowed them to frame a narrative for good or bad in traditional formats."
Lai is confident about the future of the technology especially when big firms all seem to be investing in it. Other than Facebook, Samsung is expected to release a new VR headset that is compatible with most of the brand's flagship mobiles and Ricoh has just released Ricoh Theta S - an updated version of its 2013 model. Google has not only launched Jump, a VR video platform in May, but also invested in a hefty - both in terms of price and weight - 16-camera rig called "Odyssey". Oculus has been focusing its efforts mostly on gaming.
VR agency Bosepark Productions, which is poised to enter the Hong Kong market in mid-November, is eager to take up the task of providing more original content. The company was founded last year by Sebastian Simmert, Su Holder and Chris Guse, who all worked in radio and television.
Guse says that they chose Hong Kong because the Asian market is more open to and enthusiastic about new technologies than Europe.
Their work includes a 360-degree video of a concert by Berlin-based punk rock band Beatsteaks and an immersive video of this year's Berlin Marathon. "At the moment, we are working on our first fictional content. We are shooting a horror film, so beware," says Guse.
"There are many areas that will be changed by the advent of 360-degree technology," says Holder. "In the entertainment industry, it will allow audiences to fully immerse themselves in the captured events, even if they are at the other end of the world. This could be for concerts, sporting events, or even a flight into space.
"Add to that the games industry. Computer games already have a basis in virtual worlds and it will be impressive to convert them into the 360 format. Another important area will be social virtual reality. A whole new form of communication would be possible. Meetings and presentations can be held in virtual reality and, perhaps even more importantly, it will become possible to interact with friends and family overseas through much more than the 2D screen or text messages."
Simmert is well aware of the challenges facing both producers and consumers. "For example, the classic cut of the film is no longer possible. We also have to be more aware of the way our cameras move. In the VR world, bumpy and sudden movement may cause motion sickness or vertigo in viewers," he says.
"But even with these concerns, it is very exciting to be at the forefront and part of the creation of this development."