Blog By: Josh Shagam
Josh Shagam is a photographer and educator.
I’m incredibly excited for the much-promised virtual reality era that sits just on the horizon. I’m excited because I’m a gadget nerd, a gamer, and a sci-fi lover. VR is poised to transform how I play games, watch movies, shop, how I use social media—maybe you’ve heard the lofty promises. But the aspect that has me behind VR the most? Photography. Professionals, amateurs, everyone in between—it’s all going transform the visual media that we create and view every day. Photography is primed to be the “killer app” for virtual reality. Allow me to summarize my thoughts on the topic.
Photography is a living and breathing tool. Artists look to their medium of choice and seek out ways to create something
new, honest, and often personal. In this way, the story of photography is constantly under development. What is a good picture? What tools are needed? In what unimagined ways can visual media be used to document or invent? Your average Joe Smartphone User doesn’t need to ask these questions…and yet he’s the key to the next era in stereoscopic photography. There are impressive tools coming to market— Jaunt VR, Nokia, even Google are throwing their weight into 360 degree video recording rigs for virtual reality. I’m excited for these because there’s no question that we’ll see unbelievable content coming from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But they are expensive and not for the majority of us. Right now despite my personal photography equipment that adds up to many thousands of dollars, I am still nowhere near a candidate for owning a 360 video rig! So the catalyst for evolution in photography comes when we have a camera that everyone can get their hands on.
Photography is not just for artists. Almost everyone with a smartphone takes pictures and this ultimately has a huge influence on the medium. Sometimes this seems like a threat to the professional, potentially undermining the skill and craft that goes into it. I choose to be an optimist and view each widening of the gate as a boon for the medium as a whole. There’s easy targets in the pessimistic view: we don’t need more selfies or breakfast documentations. We fail to experience reality without a LCD screen between us and the world. All true! But that indicates a need to reflect on our culture more than our devices. Putting cameras in everyone’s pocket should be looked at as an exceptionally exciting thing. The more that we use photography to communicate, the more mature our visual conversations can become. When I say “we” I don’t mean the professionals making a living from photographic services, or the elite, successful fine artists (not me, by the way)… I mean everyone.
Here are the big-picture reasons why I think a new generation of stereoscopic photography, combined with accessible and ubiquitous VR hardware, will transform photography and video.
Intimacy and engagement.
Time spent viewing photographs will increase when the experience breaks past our jaded mentality. With the exponential growth of Instagram, millions of photos uploaded to Facebook everyday, and the visuals we see on television, I would argue that we see more images than ever but spend less and less time on any single one. With VR and stereoscopic photography, the sense of presence will be profound and arresting. We will slow down and soak in visual media, reversing the endless glance-and-scroll habits to which we fall victim today.
We rarely share photo albums and yet we log hours on Face Time with family and friends. We appreciate the feel of a physical book but undoubtedly continue to spend more time with a screen. Stereoscopic photos and video will feel more intimate, real, and personal than anything we’ve experienced before (other than real life, of course!), and will be comfortable in our digital social infrastructure. It will cease to feel like we’re viewing through a window to another time and place; it will feel like we get to experience important moments whenever we want. Which leads me to my next point…
Sharing experiences rather than showing off.
We’ve all been there. We see photo after photo come up in our social media stream that highlights just how much that one friend is hiking, traveling, and generally living life better than us. The truth is that this will be a problem regardless of camera hardware or the social media platform of choice. We like to show off! We like to use the web to showcase and document the memorable parts of life! This will change with VR media in the sense that the viewer or consumer will truly get something out of it. The content creator, the photographer, is editing, curating, and finessing the important parts of their lives to share with others. 360 degree video may do this, but I believe that 180 degree stereoscopic imagery will be more successful, because, as John Carmack said recently, “what’s important is what you point the camera at.”* The person filming, intentionally or not, will be crafting experiences much more than documenting them. These experiences will be feel personal for the viewer because he or she will be there in a visceral way. Stepping into a scene in the first person makes the content about the viewer as much as it does the content creator.
Content will soon feel more alive, more responsive, and more real than traditional, two-dimensional visual media. When the original stereoscopic photography was invented in the 1800’s, the writer and photography enthusiast Oliver Wendell Holmes described how “the mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture” when viewing stereoscopic images. In the 1930’s another writer described the experience as “synthetic solidity.”** And this is in reference to the side-by-side, cross-your-eyes stereographs that we dismiss today as quaint. VR will make our on-again off-again fascination with 3D a permanent one. This is admittedly a fuzzier point until you are able to use the technology for yourself; I believe that Holmes’ poetic descriptions are based in a genuine affinity for the brain’s perception of stereoscopic photos. It’s not marketing, it’s real emotion that is ignited by this type of technology. It feels real because it is very close to how we experience reality, at least in the visual sense.
Creative visual storytelling yet to be realized.
Every new feature or function that technology offers to photography should be seen as ripe with creative possibility. I’m not naive, the majority of features that get thrown at us don’t stick and often amount to gimmicks. But the writing’s on the wall: VR is where Hollywood and the gaming industry see a lot of potential for storytelling.*** Anyone interested in photography should adopt a similar mindset. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with stereoscopic photography and VR. I will undoubtedly make images that don’t work, or try things that are embarrassingly silly. But I might also make photographs that blow my mind, fundamentally alter how I approach making art, and transform my career in photography.
Ultimately we have to wait: wait to get our hands on stereoscopic cameras, wait for polished consumer model virtual reality headsets, wait for the established platforms of storing and sharing catch up to this new evolution of media.**** Once the tools are in-hand, though, I don’t think we’ll have to wait long to be wowed by what people capture.
Josh Shagam is a photographer and educator. He’d love to open up a conversation about the future of VR photography. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
**Arthur W. Judge, Stereoscopic Photography: Its Applications to Science, Industry and Education, 3rd ed. (London, England: Chapman and Hall, 1950), 15.
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