Before I start dissecting virtual reality photography, let me just say what you’re probably thinking when you consider the statement posed in the title of this editorial: “It’s too soon to tell.” That phrase can basically be applied to any aspect of Virtual Reality (VR), be it photography, film, gaming, or otherwise. No one has definitively figured out how virtual reality content will be created or consumed, so trying to categorize what the future of VR holds is like trying to catch a unicorn: it’s hopeless. But also like catching a unicorn, we may not know where VR is but we can probably figure out where it isn’t.
What makes something a photograph? Well, in my mind it has to be still image (although Apple and others are challenging that notion). A photo must be of reality and in some way depict an event or site that actually happened. While it may seem like heavily doctored images are a form of photography, I would rather call these pictures than photos. Pictures are any flat visual representation, and include drawings, paintings, and many other mediums. So if we work off the premise that a photograph is a still representation of reality captured by a camera, then VR photography seems well at home in the photography realm. But I believe there are two important aspects that make VR still images a completely separate medium from photography: framing and time.
[The Nokia OZO prototype]
Though technically speaking a Virtual Reality Image or VRI (which is what I will be calling spherical still images captured for virtual reality) is essentially the same as a photograph, this is not enough for the two mediums to be considered the same. Both are created with the same basic technology (exposing light sensitive material for a set amount of time through a lens) which in turn makes a file (or negative) that replicates the light that hit the sensor in that time back out to the viewer. But this is exactly how a video works too, just with lots and lots of photographs whizzing by quickly, but each frame is exactly the same as a photo. What separates photography from video is not the technology through which it is created, but the experience of creating it and the intended way the audience is expected to experience it. The same can be said of what separates VRIs from photography. While a VRI is essentially a large, spherically curved photograph, it is still important to consider it’s strengths and uses on its own terms. Just as you would think of a video as one cohesive unit through time instead of lots of brief photographs, you should also think of a VRI as its own unique platform for creation.
One of the most important skills a photographer develops is selective framing (such as the brilliant framing in the Lewis Baltz photograph above). At any given time and place, a photographer can potentially take an infinite number of photographs (the possible), but can actually take only one (the actual). This selection process is the essence of photography. The rest of the practice, from technical know-how to post production, is all in service of presenting “the decisive moment” when your camera is set and pointed at the right place at the right time and you pull the trigger.
A photograph has been made. However, with a VRI, one of the two key elements of the decisive moment is eliminated: the framing. Because it’s a still, a VRI requires the creator to choose the precise time that the image is created, but it doesn’t require the camera to be aimed at anything in particular. Most of what a photographer does isn’t showing important things, but leave out unimportant things. Like the spirit and methodology of Japanese cooking, it’s not about what you can add to create a flavor, but how much you can take away before the flavor is lost. A VRI, on the other hand, includes everything in sight at a specific time, thus relying on the viewer to find the important things and frame the image themselves. I think Ben C. Solomon described the difference best in his New York Times article: “taking a photograph is like hunting, you have to aim, whereas capturing VR is like setting traps, you leave most of the work up to the prey.” But eliminating the need to edit out most of a scene isn’t the only differentiating element between a VRI and a photograph, both mediums also interact uniquely with time.
[The Oculus Rift]
Just like a VRI, a photograph is a slice of time, usually a very small slice but occasionally a larger one (long exposure photography). However, a photo is also stagnant in that it collapses a very small range of time into a form that is totally still. The end result can be viewed in its entirety in a single moment because the image completely resides within the viewer’s field of vision.
This is not true for a VRI, which necessitates that the image be understood through time, sequentially.
If you’re wearing the Oculus Rift for example, and view a VRI, it takes at least a few seconds to be exposed to every part of the image, and you’re never exposed to the whole thing at one time. Instead, the captured moment that is entirely fixed in time is experienced temporally, seeing one part of the captured moment one second and another part of the same captured moment the next second. A photograph, on the other hand, is both captured in a singular moment and experienced in a singular moment. A video, which would lie on the opposite end of the spectrum as a photograph with a VRI in the middle, is both created throughout time and experienced throughout time. So the viewing of a VRI differs greatly from both a photograph and a video because it is a stagnant scene that is viewed through time. In this way, it isn’t a “virtual reality” at all, more like a “virtual fantasy.” A VRI can take a split second and freeze it, allowing the viewer to absorb far more of the moment than would ever be possible in reality, photography, video, or VR video. I’m not sure, but I imagine this experience is basically what it’s like to be the Flash.
It’s obvious that capturing a VRI is similar to photography in many ways: both mediums represent reality at a precise moment in time and place in the universe. However, a VRI does’t require the framing that is so paramount to the creation of a photograph, leaving the most essential photographic skill up to the viewer. On the other hand, VRIs in many ways open up a world of possibilities and power that has never been accessible before, letting a person experience all of his or her surroundings at the exact same time. There’s no way of knowing what the future of VRIs holds, since even Lytro is poised to make a big difference in this area, but it’s obviously different from the mediums that have come before it. I believe these differences will prove to be enough to consider VRIs an entirely unique medium in themselves, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!
To see some examples of VRIs (though on your computer screen instead of an immersive environment) check out the International VR Photography Association, IVRPA.