My 10-episode journey into HBO’s Westworld wearing NEODiVR uPLAy
UPDATE: It was just announced that there will be HBO VR theatre app in Google Daydream.
After finishing up the latest production prototype of the NEODiVR uPLAY, a highly immersive pocketable mobile VR viewer and optional equally pocketable semi-rigid headband and smart phone bracket in late September 2016. I wanted to “dog food” my product to test for comfort and viewability. What good is something if you can’t take anywhere, notably public transportation like trains, buses and airplanes and immerse yourself in either a Google Cardboard app, or a saved video? It was the latter that I thought would give me the best opportunity to test comfort and viewability for a longer period.
NEODiVR uPLAy with clip on phone bracket with optional helmet mount piece
For the software, there are several VR theatres for Android and iOS phones. Some of these were built with the Unity game engine, some were developed with the Google VR API. After trying several apps, I made my decision to use “VU Cinema Pro” for Android. For $1.99 not only do you get a standard theater experience complete with seats, but also an IMAX version with a huge screen. Like many VR theaters, including Google’s own Cardboard YouTube viewer, gaze control is the control mechanism of choice. You just stare at position and wait for the circle to complete and that feature activates. With VU Cinema, you can select video type, either mono, stereo SBS (Side by Side) or TB (Top/Bottom), as well as variety of video encoding formats. It also supports a subtitle, and multiple audio language track. It also includes a screen lock feature for those phones where the gyro drifts too much, but the best experience is having gyro/accelerometer turned on for a more realistic experience.
Next you need to provide content, and for me it was Westworld, through my HBO subscription and offline storage at a resolution of 1280×720, since there is no screen that supports a resolution higher than 2560×1440 and since video content even in mono still needs to generate an image for each eye giving you only 1280 pixels at max per eye, but more like 1200 once you throw in screen border and the center mask.
Once armed with the content, viewing app and the NEODiVR uPLAy, I was ready to watch the first episode of Westworld. Even though this was not my first experience using a VR theatre since I tried a version for Windows for the Oculus DK1, then for the Oculus DK2, and eventually for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, I find that my uPLAy with its minimal design and big lenses, gives you the sense you have just donned 3D glasses instead of wearing a mask and giving me the illusion I was actually sitting in a theater. The best kind since I didn’t have to worry about someone next to me texting, or people talking behind me. Or that cramped feeling you get with sold-out theatre. Sure, I guess the developer could populate the theatre with avatars if this makes you feel too lonely, but I actually enjoyed having an IMAX theater all to myself.
So, what is it like? To me, I found the experience damn good. Sure, you can see the sub-pixels, but at 2560×1440 on the Pixel XL, Nexus 6P, Nexus 6, Note 4, Note 7 or the LG G5 they were barely visible, and as the episode progressed and as you became more engrossed, I forgot that I was wearing the uPLAy and thought I was in a theatre, no that isn’t quite right. I felt like I was part of the experience. With characters’ life size and conversing in right in front of you, and found myself replying, suggesting or even warning Delores of a impending situation. Sadly (no spoilers), she didn’t heed my warnings. It was also breathtaking at times since the vistas, which were shot in Dead Horse Point state park were just amazing. I can only think of what this would have been like if some of this was shot with Nokia OZO, or similar high-resolution stereo 360 spherical cameras, which leads me to the “what I would do to make this even better?” suggestions.
Screen captured opening credits of HBO’s Westworld in the VU Cinema Android app
As mentioned, I longed for full stereo 360 scenes, like when the opening scenes play out in the streets of Sweetwater that would have been amazing if the camera had been a stereo 360, allowing you to experience the scene as though you were standing in the middle of it next to William as he took it all in. Imagine not needing to rotate the camera to force your view, but using sounds and voices to draw your attention. Like maybe someone yelling in your right ear, causing you to look in that direction just before the gunfight ensued. Imagine being in the street when the gang road in and started shooting up the town? This is what I long for, the day where I feel like I’m part of the scene as it plays out. But right now, these cameras are in their infancy and the resolution required to produce the same detail we take for granted at 1080P would need to be 5K-8K, not just the 4K content we are just starting to see. Also, stereo 360 spherical effects and editing are harder and requiring a great deal more computer power to render the frames at 8K, plus a ton of storage to hold the footage. Granted H.265 and wavelet compression techniques will help, but encoding time will be excruciating requiring more cloud computing or encoding farms. But it will happen, and not only will I be able see what the maze was, but feel like I was part of the discovery. Until then, I dream of next season’s opening episode as I slip the uPLAy viewer around the sides my new Note 8 with its 3840×2160 screen, clip on the phone bracket, stretch the band over the top of my head, place my Sony MDR-7506s over my ears, lean back in my La-Z-Boy, close my eyes to listen to the haunting piano introduction, and then opening my eyes to once again find myself in Sweetwater and back inside maze.
HBO’s Westworld promo image of Sweetwater