How to become a world leading film studio overnight? (spoiler: 360° video)

Update: Our programmer Christine is testing the Lufthansa Virtual Reality Experience on the Rift

I am currently spending the week at Berlin’s ITB, a big international tourism trade fair. At Lufthansa’s booth we are presenting a digital experience we have been working on for the last three months. When we started the project we knew that there was something we needed that no one had ever done before.

We needed 360° videos taken on a commercial aircraft.

It would have been difficult enough to find someone who had experience in producing 360° video at all but the requirement to produce it on a plane made it a real challenge. At that time (3 months ago) we were a design and technology company. As funny as it may sound — today I suppose we are a world leading film studio.

But let me explain. If you have followed 3spin’s work in the area of virtual reality you may already know that we have introduced VR Inflight-Entertainment and the first virtual reality app in the airline industry. And we have put ourselves under much pressure to keep up with this pace. We already knew that we wanted to do 360° video at some point.

For a company like Lufthansa Airlines it’s a real challenge to present their actual product at a trade fair. That’s because their product is a combination of a lot of things. It’s not just the seats, it’s not just the plane, it’s not just the people and it’s not just the surrounding services. It is a mix of all these factors that differentiate a “carrier” from an “airline”.

Virtual Reality allows companies like Lufthansa to present their USP. But VR in that case doesn’t mean artificial 3D modeled objects. Because that wouldn’t be very authentic and human which is exactly what makes the difference in the service business. So we knew we wanted to show guests the actual on-board experience. In way that wasn’t just for the sake of the technology.

We magically wanted a Lufthansa flight to happen right at their booth. In a way that guests would say “Wow, this felt so real. You are messing with my head.” and where bystanders would ask “Where are you?” and the guest would answer “I’m on business class” or “I’m in San Francisco” (which are now all actual quotes from guests at this fair).

And for that we needed 360° video. A video of Lufthansa’s service on board the plane that wouldn’t just show it to the user but that allowed for a truly immersive experience.

When we started looking for a company that would make the video to put in our VR software we quickly realised that we needed to search across the pond. But even in the USA there are just a handful of really skilled teams that produce 360° video. Through some connections we made contact with one renowned company. They told us it would be a very demanding task and that they liked to support us but didn’t have the time to do it.

Instead they recommended another studio. When we asked them they were very interested in making a travel destination video for us. However when we told them we wanted to film on a plane they gave me the feeling that we were crazy. And yes, they had every right to do so.

Filming on a plane in 360°? It means limited space, no natural light, no way to place sufficient artificial internal lighting and many more reasons to make you think twice. Limited space alone in 360° video is a real problem because of the parallax problems one receives when faced with objects close to the camera.

Apart from those technical challenges we quickly learned what artistic differences existed compared to traditional filmmaking. There is no camera angle. The user is the camera. And I can’t force the user to look where the story happens unless I want to make a bad VR experience. Because freedom is exactly what makes 360° video so unique. The possibility to look wherever I want.

In addition we wanted to make this an interactive experience and combine the 360° video with virtual objects that would appear in the user’s hand while he is holding a PS move controller. We knew the videos had to be planned accordingly so the user could have a seamless virtual experience.

You might guess it already — it became clear to us that we needed to produce this film ourself. So within a few weeks we have put together a team of individual experts in cameras techniques, storytelling, directing, post production and many more areas of expertise. Luckily almost all employees in our company had some kind of film background from their time at the university or previous work.

We needed to find ways to guide a user’s view with motion, sound and story elements specifically designed for 360° degrees. For example if the users looked to the front when sitting in the plane’s seat and we wanted him to look to his neighbour we would stop all primary actions in other areas. In his peripheral view we would let a flight attendant start walking into the direction where the new action was supposed to happen. When the users looked into that direction we started the story element.

Being at the ITB for a few days now I am glad to say it works in 90% of all cases. It is amazing to see this new form of storytelling and technology come to life. And I honestly still can’t believe how overnight we became the first film studio to ever make an interactive movie on a 747 plane (without even wanting to).

It is amazing how a “new” technology or idea can give relatively small companies a competitive advantage over most major players in the industry. When we made the film just one month ago I haven’t heard of a single Hollywood studio making official announcements in the area of 360 filmmaking.

But I am absolutely convinced this situation is about to change very quickly which is why we will work hard to keep pushing the boundaries. I guess the situation in VR is comparable to the car manufacturing industry where a company like Tesla could suddenly enter a business that has been dominated by huge corporations for decades.

I am very much looking forward to what is coming.

Update: We have made a video of the virtual reality experience at the ITB. Watch it here.