Is this what virtual reality needs to take off?

Lytro Immerge to help VR take off
Lytro Immerge to help VR take off

To put on a virtual reality (VR) headset is to enter an alternate universe in which you're on stage at a concert, driving at high speed through the desert or lacing up sneakers for a game of basketball. That's the dream, anyway.

But the nascent VR market has yet to virtually transport consumers into other worlds, because the experience, while vivid and cool, doesn't feel real enough.

That's why VR studios are itching to get their hands on a new video camera called the Immerge, created by Silicon Valley start-up Lytro. To date, content creators have been forced to cobble together four to 16 standard digital cameras on a homemade rig, then try to create a single narrative from a bunch of individual scenes.

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"We're now trying to do this immersive storytelling using old camera systems," said Anthony Batt, co-founder of VR software and content creator WEVR. "To tell immersive stories, we need a whole new pipeline and new set of technologies."

So big is the opportunity that Digi-Capital, an industry advisory firm, predicts the augmented and virtual reality market will hit $150 billion in value by 2020.

WEVR plans to be an early user of the Immerge, which Lytro introduced on Thursday. The camera, a beach ball-sized device that sits on a tripod, aspires to make a big splash in Hollywood as studios rapidly move into VR content.

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For the past nine years, Lytro has been developing so-called light field technology, designed to capture 3-D scenes with depth and intensity that bring digital images to life. While the company has struggled to find a big consumer market for its digital cameras, ranging in price from $150 to $1,300, the Immerge is its boldest effort yet.

In addition to the camera itself, Lytro's system includes a server for storage, editing tools, a playback engine and a real-time streaming server. The whole package would cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, but the more likely model is that studios rent it for a couple thousand dollars per shoot, said Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal.

The Immerge will be available in the first quarter of next year, and Rosenthal said the company was getting interest from small VR content creators all the way up to the biggest movie studios.

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"If done and realized right, this becomes the next evolution of computing," said Rosenthal.

Another company eager to test out Immerge is Felix & Paul Studios, whose work includes an upcoming VR documentary on LeBron James. In July, the Montreal-based studio announced an agreement with Facebook to produce videos for the Oculus Rift headset.

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The Oculus devices are at the high end of the market, with Google Cardboard at the opposite end. Cardboard lets anyone with an Android phone create a VR headset with a few dollars worth of materials.

Oculus and HTC are rolling out headsets with positional tracking, which enables movement within the virtual world. The combination of light-field technology and positional tracking will let users interact with objects and people in VR environments, and not be limited to the more casual viewing experiences of today.

"It's all about believing," said Paul Raphael, co-founder of Felix & Paul. "This feeling of presence that you get in virtual reality doesn't end there. With presence comes an enhanced sense of emotional engagement."