07/01/2020 8:43 AM IST

Can Sunny Leone And Ekta Kapoor Help Finally Make Virtual Reality Popular?

AltBalaji has filmed two episodes of its Ragini MMS sequel in VR with the famous actress, and the resulting video has now been viewed almost 1 million times on YouTube.

A poster for Ragini MMS Returns Season 2

BENGALURU, Karnataka—The widespread adoption of Virtual Reality has been just around the corner for so long, that it is beginning to feel like the technology has come full circle. Now, Sunny Leone andEkta Kapoor’s streaming platformAltBalaji are taking a shot at taking VR mainstream by using it to promote Ragini MMS Returns Season 2. 

The show will air on AltBalaji, but is being promoted with a special 360-degree 3D video on bothFacebook’s Oculus platform and YouTube, which supports VR through theGoogle Cardboard platform.

The video has almost 1 million views on YouTube thus far, a record for filmmaker Clyde Desouza who created and directed the episode, which is no surprise considering Sunny Leone is themost searched for Indian on Google, year after year since 2012.

The VR film was produced for Alt Balaji by Ambisonix VR Labs, an Immersive Media studio, in collaboration with Alt Balaji and ZEE5, to introduce VR to mainstream audiences. 

“Alt Balaji has shown foresight in bringing virtual reality filmed entertainment to online users. Creatively and technically the film showcases some firsts in VR cinematography, acting and staging, that will be studied by studios in the West,” Desouza said.

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The use of virtual reality in this way is unusual for Indian movies and TV shows, and Desouza and Alt Balaji are hopeful that it will generate interest in the show, while also showcasing a new platform for videos. However, the use of VR for videos has met with limited success in the world.

The porn industry has been one of the enthusiastic early adopters, but mainstream use remains limited. What’s more, a lot of people still find VR to be an uncomfortable experience, as it cuts them off from the world and can cause motion sickness — and it appears that VR motion sickness is morecommon among women than men. Couple that with the relatively high cost of most high-end VR systems, and it doesn’t look like VR is quite ready for the mainstream, even with some help from Sunny Leone.

Watching the episode

To watch the episode, you either need an Oculus headset (which ranges from the Oculus Go, starting at $199, the Oculus Quest, starting at $399, and the Oculus Rift S, which also starts at $399, but needs a powerful PC as well) to watch on Facebook’s Oculus platform, or you can watch it on YouTube. With a VR headset like a Google Cardboard (which you can get online for as little as Rs. 500) you can see the show as it is intended in 3D, or you can see it on your phone, tablet or computer, and swipe around the screen to change your point of view.

Like many VR videos, it can be a little difficult to watch the episode; there’s no frame per se, and you can look around and see everything around you. This means that filmmakers have to try and find ways to get you to look in the right direction, or their big moments can be lost on the viewer. In many ways, the experience is a little like directing a video game, where you’re not sure what the player is going to be doing at any moment, but through lighting and audio cues, it’s possible to guide the viewer. 

“Ragini MMS VR is a stereoscopic VR film. This differs immensely from many so called ‘VR Films’ because it is not flat 360 video,” said Desouza. “Audiences experience 3-dimensional depth as they do in 3D movies in Cinemas, only, the sense of ‘presence’ is heightened tenfold as there is no perceived physical distance from the viewer to the action. Even at a 3D IMAX cinema, seats and the physical screen in front, break the illusion of total immersion. In a good stereoscopic VR film, the viewer when wearing a headset, is ‘in’ the movie.”

Although the company is obviously hoping that theracy reputation of Alt Balaji, coupled with the fan following for Sunny Leone, will get people curious and have them turn up for the episodes, the actual clip is definitely PG, and isn’t actually very gripping. The format is interesting, and being able to experience this in a completely new way kept us going, but the story itself is not something you’re going to remember two days down the line.

Getting Alt Balaji on board

Although there are a lot of VR films available on YouTube right now, it’s mostly documentaries from companies like Discovery. VR entertainment, particularly if it’s not extremely short skits, is hard to come by, partly because the audience isn’t there yet. But is this a chicken and egg problem? If the numbers for the clip are anything to go by, then there are people who are interested in watching if the content is right for them.

Shatadru Sarkar, founder of Ambisonics VR Labs, the studio that produced the VR film, said, “We are thrilled to have worked with Alt Balaji on bringing the Ragini MMS franchise to life in virtual reality. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first stereoscopic 3D 360 VR film out of India.”

Divya Dixit, senior VP and Head Marketing, Alt Balaji added in a mailed note, “VR is one of those emerging technologies that is leading the way for interesting and innovative storytelling formats.  Even though it is still at its nascent stage, we are extremely proud to become the first OTT platform to adopt this sophisticated technology. We seek to be pioneers in using virtual reality in mainstream entertainment.”

Alt Balaji originals

Desouza in particular heaped praise on Ekta Kapoor, saying that she is very forward looking among Indian media houses. “We got into conversations around six months ago, and shot on location with the crew in Manali and on the set in Mumbai. We worked with them in-house to develop a VR product, and we’re well on track to hit a million views which is a big milestone.” Desouza said that this production also showed how you can make VR shows while also making normal two-dimensional episodes, allowing the productions to work side by side without raising costs much. However, he added that a long form VR movie was unlikely.

“You don’t have to produce a 90 minute VR show, it’s best in smaller doses. Around 10 minutes is a really good length for the production,” he said. “That’s why we’re also going to be doing a lot more with music videos. Oculus has also picked up as a product now, it’s backordered till February, and VR provides a more intimate experience, so we’re hoping that it’ll catch on now.”

Far from mainstream

Although the million views is a huge benchmark for Desouza and shows that there is an audience out there, the number of views isn’t actually that huge, when compared to other Alt Balaji videos. Its trailer for Gandi Baat Season 4 has 1.4 million views in less than a week, and the official trailer for Ragini MMS has 3.7 million views. Although the VR video has a lot more views than many of the other clips from the platform, it’s still a lot less than traditional 2D videos.

And there are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, as noted above, most of the Oculus and other high-end headsets are expensive. If you’re not willing to put down over Rs 20,000 on the headset, you’re stuck with Google Cardboard, which has a number of limitations. It’s a headset that is placed on your phone, which acts as the display and the processor for Cardboard. For most Indians, who are buying phones in the under Rs. 10,000 price range, this leads to issues like losing orientation in the video, lag in your movement, and a generally low-resolution display that looks blocky and lacks vividness compared to the high-end displays that top end phones fromSamsung andApple have.

Despite this, the porn industry is one of the heavy investors in VR videos. VR Porn is a growing category, and there are many articles thatexamine the phenomenon. There’s a widespread belief in the tech industry that porn made all tech possible. From settling the race betweenVHS and Betamax, to helping theInternet grow, to developing onlinepayment systems, porn gets the credit. And so, people say, with porn getting into VR, the outcome is clear. The truth for all those past technologies is more complicated, and that’s the case for virtual reality too.

Many people find it isolating — to be completely immersed in a virtual world means cutting out reality, which can lead to a number of risks and embarrassment. Others still find it causes motion sickness. According toresearch, this effect is more pronounced in women than men, which means that the people who are able to access this technology comfortably is very limited. 

Given these constraints, it’s perhaps not surprising that porn, and Alt Balaji, are seeing takers in VR, but the long-term future of this medium is still very much up in the air as technology continues to evolve and become more accessible.

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