While primarily used for gaming, Sony’s PlayStation VR and VR in general have some other, lesser known applications. By enabling Theatre Mode, for instance, PS4 owners can watch films in their own private cinema – a feature that now extends to 3D Blu-Rays. Unsurprisingly, using the console’s web browser, it didn’t take long for users to stumble upon a wider and more… exotic selection of VR films for their viewing pleasure.
Whatever genre or type of media you wish to consume, virtual reality is there to enhance the experience with that added degree of immersion. It can also be used as a powerful education tool, helping us to visualise and explore scenes we’d never stumble upon in our day to day lives.
Alchemy VR can be seen as a pioneer in this particular space, and is one of the first companies to launch a series of PlayStation VR “Apps” via Sony’s digital storefront. Lasting ten to fifteen minutes each, they come in at around 2GB in file size, priced between £3.60 and £5.35. Although they’ll appear in your games folder, don’t expect to bag some easy trophies. They’re all strictly eyes-on with no direct interaction. They are, in effect, video files shot in 360’ VR, adjusting to any head movements while wearing the PlayStation VR rig.
Out of the three, David Attenborough’s First Life has the most appeal. As the name suggests, this app sees the legendary broadcaster take viewers back some 540 million years to the origins of life on earth. As with the other two VR apps, it mostly takes place underwater, guiding viewers through a chronology of animated scenes. It’s a deeply informative experience and although it ends abruptly, I walked away knowing much more than I did on the subject.
As anyone who owns a copy of PlayStation VR Worlds will know, the game’s self-contained shark encounter is perhaps one of the scariest, most memorable VR dioramas available. Cocos Shark Island is nowhere near as frightening, instead giving viewers a more intimate look into the lives of these ocean predators, 340 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. Again, it’s fairly short and feels more like a proof of concept as opposed to a fully fledged documentary, though the writing and narration are both great.
The last in Alchemy VR’s trio of apps, the exact same can be said of Atomic Ghost Fleet despite its rather dramatic title. Going back underwater for a third time, this time viewers follow a team of researchers as they explore the Bikini Atoll and its infamous shipwrecks. As you get up close to these massive vessels, snippets of black and white archive footage will appear in overlays.
It’s an interesting alternate use of PlayStation VR, but one that has a fair few drawbacks. The actual video quality across all three apps isn’t particularly consistent. The cameras used to shoot the footage in Cocos Shark Island and Atomic Ghost Fleet don’t allow for the same crisp images that game engines produce. Film grain and natural lighting compromise the viewing experience somewhat as well. First Life doesn’t suffer in quite the same way and, being a 3D animation, there’s a clearer sense of direction. That said, I found it hard to focus on any smaller details without feeling uncomfortable.
Alchemy VR is attempting something different and there’s definitely value to work they’re doing. However, these are the kinds of VR experiences that you can get for free elsewhere. YouTube and other video sharing platforms offer an increasing array of 360’ videos that achieve just about the same effect on mobile devices.
With a bigger budget, improved capture techniques, and some form of viewer interaction, Alchemy VR could easily distance itself from these free alternatives. Just imagine how amazing it would be to experience Planet Earth or BBC’s Life in virtual reality. For now, however, we’re a long way off though projects like these give us hope.