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Virtual Reality Is 'The Last Medium,' Says Filmmaker and Vrse CEO Chris Milk (Q&A)

"Ultimately, what we're talking about is a medium that disappears, because there is no rectangle on the wall, and there is no page you're holding in your hand. It feels like real life."

Eric Johnson for Re/code

“I prefer making stuff to talking about how I made the stuff,” says Vrse CEO Chris Milk. “I have to do that a lot lately. You do one TED Talk, and then everyone thinks that you’re the guy.”

But like it or not, Vrse has been attracting inbound attention from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and beyond. The 15-person startup has forged partnerships with major media entities like the New York Times, entertainment properties like “Saturday Night Live” and even the United Nations. In the nascent world of VR content, it’s widely seen as one of the companies that “gets it.”

“Chris is the grandfather of cinematic VR,” fellow VR filmmaker René Pinnell said. “Well, maybe not ‘grandfather.’ I don’t know a way to say that without making him sound old.” (For the record, Milk is in his late 30s.)

Vrse is now getting serious about shaping the business side of cinematic virtual reality, but where should creative energies go now that the first consumer VR headsets are finally coming out? Milk recently sat down with Re/code to explain where he sees things heading.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: Why are you interested in virtual reality?

Chris Milk: People think about VR as a distribution point, a technological solution to broadcast content to people. They look at it in the same way that they look at regular video. Every digital video player — RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, Vevo, Hulu, YouTube — all of them had different ways of getting you the video, but it was still always the same series of rectangles. The format never changed.

The format of virtual reality is going to continue to evolve. What we’ll have in five, 10, 15 years is not going to look much like what we have now. It’s going to be driven by creatives that are actively working on how to figure out the creative problems. few people have virtual reality headsets right now. What has to happen now to ensure that you can do what you want to be doing in 5, 10, or 15 years?

There’s three things that you need for virtual reality to work. You need the hardware that’s affordable and doesn’t make people sick, you need an audience that is willing to pay for it and you need the content. And right now, there’s a lot of using the technology and the format to impress people. There’s a certain reliance on the “wow” factor out there.

You’re at a conference and you only have a few minutes to reach someone, so you just go straight to the boom?

Yeah. But it’s easy to do that because people haven’t seen it yet. If people are going to engage with the technology on a longer scale, they’re going to need deeper, more affecting, more human stories to engage with. We, as an industry, have to be pushing that forward. Otherwise, the floodgates are going to open, the audiences are going to come, and they’re just going to get through the content very quickly and there will be nothing left.

Vrse / “Evolution of Vrse”

So if not providing a short-term “wow,” what should the content coming out in the first year of VR do? Is there a certain thing that you hope VR will achieve that other media hasn’t done?

I want to engage an audience on a deeper human level than any other medium that has reached them. We talk about virtual reality as “the last medium.” It’s the first medium that has actually interfaced on a truly human level with our human senses — two of them right now, eyes and ears. Ultimately, what we’re talking about is a medium that disappears, because there is no rectangle on the wall, and there is no page you’re holding in your hand. It feels like real life.

Whereas with a TV show or book, you can look away from it and be instantly reminded that that’s not reality.

Yeah. So what I find interesting is, that’s where it scales to. That’s not where we are right now. Now, you’re confined to a couch or you’re confined to a 10-by-10 rug and you can’t smell things, you can’t taste things, you can’t feel things. But you have to figure, if you scale the technology out, those will come eventually.

Vrse / “Clouds Over Sidra”

Many of my readers, and even some of my co-workers, haven’t tried virtual reality yet.


Yes. What do you want those people to be thinking about now?

It’s ultimately something that you absolutely have to try to really, truly understand it. And that goes back to the audience thing. How do we get them to try it? This is why you know that eventually VR will be the thing that we all hope it will be. When people try it, they instantly understand it and they recognize what it is. But getting people to try it, keeping people there with more content, is a problem. The fact that you have co-workers, that there are people who work in the technology world and haven’t tried virtual reality, is amazing.

You’ve said that VR experiences will be somewhere in between what today we call films and video games. Are you a gamer?

I played a lot more games when I was a kid than I have lately. I’ve found it difficult to feel the same emotional engagement that I feel in a really great film.

Why do you think that is?

Video games as a storytelling medium are, from a mathematical standpoint, a branching narrative. You start at one place, you can go in multiple different directions, and there’s a multitude of different endings. From a storytelling-authorship perspective, it’s difficult enough to tell one, single story that ends in one, single way. If it wasn’t hard, every movie would be a great movie, and that’s obviously not the case. To tell a story that can end 67 different ways, that’s really difficult.

Vrse / “Walking New York”

And some people will shut down if you say, “This is like a video game” because they’re not gamers.

Video games are obviously a huge market, but for virtual reality to evolve to what it needs to be, it needs to move past that audience. I hope that the things we’re making are things that your mom can enjoy, your grandmother can enjoy. And we’ve seen that. We’ve put 85-year-old people in there and they’re not playing Call of Duty; they’re seeing a Syrian refugee camp, and it affects them. And they don’t care about the technology. As soon as they experience it, the technology part goes away.

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