VRguy podcast Episode 15: Jens Christensen on 360 and 3D video in VR

JAUNT VR photo shoot in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, April 2, 2015. Photo by Alison Yin Photography

My guest today is Jens Christensen, former CEO of JauntVR. This episode was recorded on June 7th, 2016.

Jens and I talk about the differences between consumer and professional 3D/360 degree cameras, where value is and will be in the video workflow, lessons he has learned from non-VR markets and more.

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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):     Hello, Jens, and welcome to the program.

Jens Christensen:            Thank you, Yuval. It’s great to be here.

VRguy:  Who are you and what do you do?

Jens:      My name is Jens Christensen and I’m an entrepreneur, computer scientist technology guy, and also Angel investor. My latest venture has been Jaunt, I was the CEO of Jaunt for three years. I’m one of the founders there. Before then, I did a number of other companies, that included Ellerdale, which is a semantic search company that sold to Flipboard as well as Visigenic that was a middleware company that went public in the 90’s.

VRguy:  Excellent. Let’s talk a little bit about the video experience. Being at Jaunt or being co-founder and CEO, I’m sure you know a ton about that. I was always curious on the technical side. I can get a consumer 360 degree camera, like a Ricoh for 300 bucks or something like that. How is it different than professional grade camera, both in terms of the process, the work flow, the experience. Could you contrast these two experiences for me, please?

Jens:      Yeah, absolutely. It really has a parallel to the non-VR world. Your consumer level cameras, even your phone cameras, and then of course you have professional grade cameras that people use in cinemas and they’re completely different work flow, a completely different level of quality. Basically, at Jaunt and other sort of high end VR camera producers like the Nokia Ozo or et cetera, what you have are cameras that first of all have many more modules, lenses if you will, than your consumer level camera that may only have say two lenses or sometimes even just one lens. That gives you first of all much higher resolution than you would from a consumer level camera.

                Another very important aspect in VR is frame rates, so a lot of the consumer level cameras have low frame rates, sometimes 15 frames a second whereas the high level ones will have 60 frames a second, 90, even 120 frames a second. That makes a huge different in VR. When you’re committing to watching a VR experience, putting on a headset, it’s very important to have a high frame rate.

                The next thing is obviously things like dynamic range and resolution. Again, the professional level cameras will have a high dynamic range and a very high resolution, whereas the consumer level cameras will have a lower level than that.

                Finally, one of the things that’s important in VR is the quality of stitching and the ability to create a 3D experience. Again, when you put on a headset and you look around, there’s certainly a convincing teleportation into the video. It really does need to be stereoscopic because that’s how you perceive the world. The only way to really achieve that is to have a camera of a certain size you need a certain inter-ocular distance in the final image. Tiny little consumer camera just does not have the space to create a convincing stereoscopic image. That’s why you will see the professional VR cameras have a certain size, typically a little larger or the size of somebody’s head, and the reason for that is it allows you to basically create stereo.

                Then along with that, some of you now are dealing with fully 360, fully 3D environment. The stitching becomes a lot more difficult because the stitching needs to account for the depth in the image. For that you’re going to need a professional, high level stitching solution which frankly is a difficult computer science problem and really requires a a scalable architecture in order implement it in a way that’s fast and efficient.

                In terms of the work flow of a professional camera, it’s really similar I would say for a traditional video professional work flow used in the movies or cinemas where your record, you may decide to do color correction, you may decide to do compositing, you insert titles, et cetera. It really isn’t all that different from that. The only sort of main difference is you have a step where you’re creating the full 360 VR experience using powerful stitching algorithms.

VRguy:  In terms of standards, are standards already in place for 3D, 360 degree video? I mean, could I use a camera from one vendor and the stitching or editing tools from another, or right now it’s still sort of full vertical integration?

Jens:      Right now it’s really very much a vertical integration. It’s early base. There are no prebuilt standards quite yet. As in any other fields I’m sure you’re going to see a lot of efforts to bringing standards to market. I think in the early days it was actually good that there are no standards per se, because I think standards could evolve and they should arrive at a time where you could really have a good decision on what to standardize on. You could get to say that this is sufficiently high quality, we’d like to make these standards. We’re still at these sort of pre-standard days. Having said that, various standards are partnering up and providing support for each other’s solutions. For example, I know at Jaunt we provide support for the Nokia OZO camera in addition to the Jaunt One camera. I think you’ll see other vendors sort of pursue similar strategies. It makes sense to have inter-operability, to give consumers choice.

VRguy:  Understood. Let’s talk a little bit about the customer experience. I think at the moment, many more people have experienced, say, an IMAX movie that does give you a feeling of immersion, that certainly can create a motion sensation. How do the 360 degree, 3D videos make the customer feel? How is it different that the IMAX experience?

Jens:      I think one of the main differences that you get with VR as opposed to even a large format like IMAX is when you’re in the VR experience itself, the fully immersed experience, you have a chance to scan. That is as you’re moving your head around and looking around and looking up and down, you have a sense for how big things are and so for example, if you’re watching a basketball game, suddenly you see wow, look at the size of LeBron James, look how tall he is. That’s something you never get on IMAX or TV. Of course they look big, but you don’t have a sense of scale for how do they look like in real life.

                That actually turns out to be very important for a number of reasons. One of the experiences I’ve had in VR is being transported to the Damascus, Syria and suddenly in a marketplace and suddenly a little kid walks by. You get suddenly a feeling, oh look how small and vulnerable the child is here in essentially what is a war zone. You get a lot more empathy for the situation. It really puts you there in a way that a large screen type cinema experience doesn’t quite do because it feels still artificial.

                In cinema, you’ve had for over 100 years this idea of suspending disbelief. You want to make the audience never suspend disbelief. In VR, that comes automatically. As soon as you put the VR headset on and you have a quality, high quality VR experience, you believe you’re there. I think a big part of the reason for that is you have a sense of scale that is produced by looking around and essentially building a 3D model in your brain of what you’re seeing.

VRguy:  Is the scale just a function of how far I am from the screen? Could I see if I sit precisely in the middle of row 12 in an IMAX theater, I’ll get the right sense of scale, or is it just completely different for VR?

Jens:      I think it’s completely different for VR. It’s an interesting question. Could you simulate the same experience in an IMAX screen? I’m not entirely sure to tell you the truth, I haven’t really thought that through, but I do know in VR as you look around, your brain is automatically building a 3D model of what you’re seeing, scaled to your size. I’ve never had that experience in a cinema before. Maybe I haven’t sat in row 12 right in the middle.

VRguy:  We spoke a little bit about the sort of value stack in the vertical integration. I mean, there are cameras, there’s stitching software, editing software, content of course, and then the delivery platform. If you think ahead about the development of the video market, where do you think most of the value’s going to be? Are cameras going to become a commodity? Is the delivery platform going to be the big thing? Where would you focus your efforts on capturing the value?

Jens:      Well, that’s a great question, Yuval. I think it’s an evolving value chain. I think in the early day, some of the value is in a different place than what you’re going to see 3 or 5 years from now. When we started Jaunt, cameras didn’t exist, so we have to build our own cameras. Clearly that was a very high value item because it didn’t exist before. Then you have to build all the necessary production software, the stitching software et cetera, which again, which that the camera’s limited use, obviously. Then have to build distribution platform that actually gets the experience out to the consumer, and in our case we also build a studio that really interfaced with the content creators who can come onto the platform and create content.

                I think long terms what’s going to happen is that more and more of the value is going to shift to the ends so that obviously there’s going to be a lot of value in the content creation area and the content owners are going to realize tremendous value, as well as in the distribution. The people that actually have the consumer end points who are watching the content are going to realize tremendous value and the chain in between I think is going to realize both as well but somewhat more limited growths, whether it be hardware, where traditionally in hardware you’ll essentially often have a race to the bottom in terms of price and so on and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar thing in VR. I think they’ll always be valuable tools that can be providers in a professional community, so I think that will be a growing part of the value chain. I would see it as a barbell where the big value I really on the content on our side as well as the distribution side.

VRguy:  How large is the leap from distributing 2D video to 3D video? Would you expect the startup to become the YouTube of VR or would YouTube become the YouTube of VR?

Jens:      I’ve often said I think the YouTube of VR is going to be YouTube, but it might actually become Facebook. These are existing platforms that are great at supplying distributions for user generated content. As cameras get better on the consumer level, you’re going to see more and more user generated content and those will be … they’ll be natural home for that. Then at the same time you’re going to need distribution for premium content, and I think just like in the 3D world if you will, what people are not calling the flatty world, you’re basically going to see the high end premium content providers don’t necessarily want their content on the UGC platforms, they’re going to want the dedicated distribution channel or channels for their content that people subscribe to or that they somehow monetize it in other ways than being ad supported.

                I do think that that’s where really there’s opportunities for other companies, is really on the premium side. To come in and be disruptive in that you can provide an end to end value chain that essentially allows content creators as easy as possible to create high end premium VR content and getting it out to the maximum number of people to consume in a way that allows them to monetize their content.

VRguy:  I’ve got two more questions for you. Probably have two hundred more questions, but just in respect of your time I’ll have 2. In terms of storytelling and directors and content generation, what do you think has not been fully understood yet about how to work with 3D and VR, or is it already everyone understands what needs to be done and now it’s let’s just get the devices and users and distribution?

Jens:      It’s in my opinion very early days. I think very little is understood as of yet of the best way to produce full VR experiences, cinematic VR experiences. A lot of the people doing it, the actors, directors, set designers, et cetera, a lot of them area really doing VR for the first time. There’s only a few out there that are veterans who have been doing it for a while. I think for this medium to really have important artistic breakthroughs, you’re going to need directors and actors et cetera who have been in the medium for a while. It’s going to take my opinion a little while to really develop the grammar of the story telling, the best practices, et cetera.

                There are companies like Jaunt who’ve been at it for several years. Jaunt was started three years ago. There’s Vrse with Chris Milk who has done tremendously high quality work, and others out there, Felix and Paul, that’s the really high quality work. You can see with those people, they’ve developed a set of best practices and what then needs to happen is that needs to be promulgated out towards the creative community at large, and really people in my opinion just need a lot more experiences doing VR and learning from mistakes as they go along and finding what works and what doesn’t work.

                Now, I myself, I’m a computer scientist, so this will not be an area I can really contribute much to, but I’m also a viewer and I can certainly tell what’s successful and what’s not successful.

VRguy:  In closing, stepping away from video and VR, as you explained, you’ve had successes, you work in other fields that are not VR before coming to Jaunt in VR. What parallels do you see between the development of non-VR markets and the VR markets and what advice can you give to entrepreneurs who are entering this field, the VR field, now?

Jens:      Right. I think there are a ton of parallels. I think VR is fundamentally a disruptive market, which is fantastic. I really, see VR is a new medium so really excited about the future, what we’re going to see there. One advice I would give to entrepreneurs, especially if they’re first time entrepreneurs, is often people think a startup is sort of like a marathon. You’re going to get in and you’re going to run and you know at a certain pace and eventually you’re going to hit the finish line.

                I think the reality is what you really have at a startup is more like a thousand sprints where you’re suddenly running really fast and then you stop for a while and then you figure out where to run next and then you sprint really fast. Especially in an area like VR that’s so rapidly changing, what you find is that the ecosystem and sort the ground beneath you keeps shifting almost on daily or weekly basis, so it’s very important to be nimble and be open minded about what you’re actually doing and the direction you’re going in. Of course, you want to actually have a north pole, if you will, a star you’re following, so you have your strategy hat on, but at the same time you have to be aware that it isn’t, you know, one smooth run to the finish line. It isn’t just about endurance, it’s also about being nimble and fast when that’s required.

VRguy:  Jens, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you coming onto the program.

Jens:      Yeah, that you Yuval. It was great. Thanks for having me.

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