These two virtual-reality Teleporters are making their debut in New York: one at the Marriott Marquis, and one near City Hall. (Courtesy: Marriott Marquis/Framestore)
By Peter Rubin
I’m the only person in the hotel lounge. It’s night, and darkness lingers beyond the windows. Despite the room’s emptiness, there’s a feeling of warmth; a fireplace crackles, and music mixes with the hum of subdued conversation and clinking glasses. Ahead of me on the wall is a topographic map of Hawaii. I approach it slowly, looking around the room as I go. There’s a long bar to my right, clusters of low-slung tables and chairs to my left, some with laptops on them—MacBook Airs, from the look of them. There’s a chess set on one of them. Closer to the map, I begin hearing new sounds. A ukulele. Crashing surf. A red ring on the map starts to pulse. I’m directly in front of it now. Suddenly, I’m drawn into the map. The terrain lines warp around me, creating a tunnel. With a whoosh, I shoot through the wormhole onto a black-sand beach. The sky is blue, the palms are swaying, the ocean laps at the shoreline. For a moment, everything is completely, utterly serene. I am in Maui.
“Actually,” a voice says from somewhere beyond my headphones, “you might want to take a small step forward.”
That’s because I’m not in Maui at all. I’m 2,500 miles east of it, actually, in the Los Angeles offices of visual-effects firm Framestore. The company’s invited me to check out the latest build of the Teleporter, a new virtual-reality experience from Marriott Hotels.
The Teleporter made its public debut September 18 at the Marriott in New York, and is now embarking on an eight-city tour (Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta,Dallas, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco) that runs through mid-November.
A week away from the September 18 unveiling, the team was scrambling to apply that final layer of polish and work out minor issues, such as precisely calibrating the camera that tracks my position. Thankfully, this isn’t Framestore’s first time at the VR dance. Earlier this year, the company engineered Ascend the Wall, a Game of Thrones experience that let you ascend the fantasy saga’s mighty Wall; now, the company is leveraging its experience and expertise to blur the lines between CGI and video, and create one of the first premium VR applications outside of gaming and entertainment.
By any account, 2014 is a momentous year for virtual reality. Oculus unveiled the latest developer version of its Rift headset and collected just about every trade-show award possible; the buzz grew so loud that Facebook bought the company in March for more than $2 billion. Game development for VR accelerated dramatically. Sony announced its own VR peripheral, known for now only as Project Morpheus. Samsung joined Oculus to develop the Gear VR mobile headset. Hollywood even jumped aboard: Comic Con International in San Diego saw VR experiences from Sleepy Hollow and Pacific Rim.
A user’s-eye view of the Teleporter’s Maui destination. (Courtesy: Marriott Marquis/Framestore)
But part of the promise of VR always has been what it means for the rest of our lives. With the Teleporter, Marriott Hotels is trying to be the first to show the world…well, the world. The journey to that black sand beach may well be a first glimpse at an entirely new side of VR utility.
“We Wanted to Be the First To Jump Out There.”
Marriott Hotels isn’t the first company you think of when you think of innovation, and it’s well aware of that. “Marriott needed to build credibility with younger travelers,” says Michael Dail, the company’s VP of global brand marketing. To that end, in 2013 Marriott launched its “Travel Brilliantly” campaign to attract new customers by positioning the company as modern and tech-savvy. It worked with MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab to remake flagship hotels as social hubs rather than a box of temporary bedrooms; it redesigned lobbies to be upscale “greatrooms,” where people might actually want to congregate. And this spring, after seeing what Framestore and marketing company Relevent Partners created with Ascend the Wall, Marriott approached Relevent to explore creating the first virtual travel experience.
“The tech has been there for a while, the application has been there, but now that it’s becoming accessible and mainstream, we wanted to be the first to jump out there,” says Dail. “We wanted something more immersive, more experiential, that helps people connect with that feeling of what travel’s really about.” After two months, Marriott and Relevent had hashed out exactly what that immersive experience should be, and took the idea to Framestore.
Prepping the night shoot in London. (Courtesy: Marriott Marquis/Framestore)
Framestore was no stranger to immersion; before Ascend the Wall, it helped director Alfonso Cuarón create the jaw-dropping 13-minute opening shot in Gravity, garnering its second Academy Award in the process. The first step was to visit the greatroom in Baltimore’s Marriott Waterfront hotel and scan everything inside it. Everything. “Every knife, plate, fork, cushion, screen, bottle, everything,” says Mike Woods, Framestore’s executive creative director. That data went into the Unreal Engine 4, a suite of game development tools, to render the Great Room as a navigable environment—essentially turning it into a video game.
Simply opening that videogame environment up to people, though, isn’t viable. “People misunderstand what works in VR,” Woods says. “We’re still in the very early days of the technology—you’re a floating camera, so don’t try too much movement.” So in the virtual greatroom, users are free to look around, but not move around; instead, the Teleporter slowly moves you along a well-demarcated path toward the map, using items in the room to provide points of reference and prevent simulator sickness. (“If you took everything out of the room, and then moved,” Woods says, “you’d see how sick you feel immediately.”)
The writer getting an early look at the Teleporter’s visual effects. (Actual Teleporter not included.) (Nathaniel Wood/WIRED)
The next step was capturing two real-life locations that serve as the destinations on the other side of the Teleporter’s wormhole: the black sand beach in Hawaii, and a platform atop London’s Tower 42 skyscraper.
Filming for virtual-reality environments remains a problem searching for a solution: While companies like Jaunt and Condition One have engineered rigs to film a 360-degree stereoscopic scene, the slightest bit of tearing or visible stitching in the result can ruin the illusion for users. “The way our head pivots on our neck and the way we take in the world—you can’t really simulate that by pointing a camera left, pointing a camera right, because those two lenses can’t get close enough to do what our head does.” says Woods. “We experimented with shooting all directions at once, but we were left with a slight sensation of a goldfish bowl.”
A Day at the Beach
Framestore’s experience working on Gravity left the team uniquely equipped to tackle that kind of technical problem. After all, making an IMAX 3-D movie using stereoscopic compositing is more than just filmmaking—it’s wizardry. And as Woods says, that sequence is “as close to VR as any feature film in history.” So while Framestore considered going off into the R&D hinterlands to find the ultimate camera solution, the company decided to stick to what it already knew how to do: use a Red Epic Dragon camera to capture all the footage it needed to encompass a 360-degree view, and then assemble it at Framestore in compositing software Nuke.
The Framestore crew prepares to capture footage in Maui. (Courtesy: Marriott Marquis/Framestore)
That’s all well and good for the second destination Teleporter users visit, a platform on London’s Tower 42 at night, because it’s a static environment. But the beach was tougher. In a wide field of view, Woods says, movements toward the edge begin to look a bit strange—and when you’re half-surrounded by vegetation on a breezy beach, there’s a lot of movement to consider. “It’s about being careful about what was moving in-shot and what wasn’t,” says Woods.
Not only that, but you must be able to capture footage in multiple directions as quickly as possible, so the lighting is as consistent as possible with a single moment. So the Framestore team spent days practicing at Rockaway Beach in Queens. “We got the system of shooting stereo down to a pretty crazy turnaround speed,” Woods says. “We could do setups and changes faster than we ever did it on commercial or film.”
The next step was to storyboard the shoot, which might sound overwrought for a scene in which nothing actually happens. However, Framestore knew that if it could plot out exactly what would, and would not, be moving, it could ensure any moving parts of the scene could be captured closer to the center of the frame, free of distortion. Then it was up to Framestore to do what it does best. “It’s not about a technical solution or an algorithm for stitching this together,” says Woods. “It’s just putting it together shot by shot. We did a lot of tests like throwing perfect spheres in to make sure there’s no sense of distortion. Look around: lines are straight, everything that should be straight is straight, things that should be curved are curved. I think we nailed it.”
The view from London’s Tower 42, one of the Teleporter’s destinations. (Courtesy: Marriott Marquis/Framestore)
More Than a Postcard
Of course, despite the term “sightseeing,” travel is about more than visuals. To that end, the finished version of the Teleporter being shown to journalists in New York today is more than just a TARDIS-sized booth to stand in. Like Ascend the Wall, it’s loaded with what Framestore and Relevent call “4-D elements”: pneumatic pumps embedded in the floor, misting nozzles in the walls, heater blowers in the ceiling, fans in the ceiling and floor, a “scent dispenser,” and a 1000-watt amplifier in the rear cabinet. It all deepens the immersion: When you land on the beach, the pumps in the floor create the feeling of a cushioned landing, and you feel 80-degree warmth, a sea breeze, and ocean mist. When the Teleporter sends you to your perch at the edge of Tower 42, the floor tilts to heighten the sense of being 400 feet up.
(There’s also a laundry list of additional hardware, from a motherboard with 32 gigs of RAM to a server rack stocked with networking switches and sound equipment; the entire thing is controlled via a central control app, which Framestore controls remotely via iPod Touch.)
The entire experience, which runs roughly 100 seconds, encompasses a mind-boggling amount of data, especially for the 40 seconds of live video. While the Oculus Rift DK2’s display is a mere 1080p, Framestore created the video renders of the destinations at 8K resolution, running at 75 frames per second. “Even in IMAX, that could cripple a post-production house,” Woods says. “With lots of different directions, that’s a hell of a lot of stuff we’re pumping around internally.”
Obviously, only companies with deep pockets can afford to create installations like the Teleporter; it took three months to create a 90-second experience, making it one of the most labor-intensive entertainment experiences out there. But for Marriott, the expense—which no one would disclose—is well worth it, especially as the first step toward using virtual reality for other purposes. “We’re seeing a lot of potential applications,” says Dail. “We’re considering what it means for in-room entertainment. And behind the scenes, it’s a great opportunity for training your sales associates how to enhance the guest experience—it’s almost like a dress rehearsal module.”
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