SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:
When film industry professionals think of virtual reality (VR), it is usually as another content platform: a cutting-edge form of entertainment that, many predict, will one day rival ‘pure film‘ as an artistic medium of its own.
However, Mark Hocker, the managing director of Johannesburg-based The Boiler Room Productions, is eager to point out that this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what this technology could offer the film and entertainment industries.
Australian-born Hocker was instrumental in introducing 3D animation to South Africa when he first moved here in the 1990s. This included producing content, but also training staff at SABC and M-Net and installing systems all over the country.
After this, he was approached by SASOL to produce animated training videos, and this is where – in his words – he began to build “the largest industrial library in the world for 3D models.”
Somewhat ingeniously, 3D modelling systems are “backwards-compatible, so even models you developed 20 years ago can be read by the software and used within a VR world today.“
This cache of know-how and 3D stock led Hocker to “take the plunge into VR four years ago. I found some animators who showed an aptitude for programming, got them up to speed, and we have turned out some truly ground-breaking products since.”
Hocker takes a moment to clear up some terminology.
“When I say ‘VR’, people immediately think of a rig with goggles. That’s just one output mechanism of VR – we call that immersive technology – but I have apps here on my phone that can provide a full VR experience, to run simulations or explore an area remotely.”
To demonstrate the difference, Hocker hands me an Oculus Go headset.
He tells me that his team is involved in developing motion-control rigs that will soon replace rides (such as the Cobra roller-coaster) at Cape Town’s Ratanga Junction amusement park.
He fires up the VR headset and lets me experience the virtual version of this roller-coaster ride, captured using a 360-degree video. Even in a static desk chair, the experience is exhilarating: involuntarily, I clench my stomach before we fall into the first drop and wince as we fly around corners.
The only way to describe it, as Hocker says, “is that it’s like you’ve been teleported; it’s like you’re really there.”
The conversation then turns to the area where Hocker believes that – beyond pure entertainment value – technologies such as this can have the biggest impact on the local production landscape. “The training industry has gone beserk for VR,” he says.
He shows me a couple of thick catalogues belonging to a company called Sandvik and explains that they are “the largest producer of underground mining equipment in the world. We developed a simulator for them that allows their engineers to get hands-on experience of the equipment, perform checks and run through maintenance drills via a headset.”
He shares a 3D animation with the computer screen in the office – it shows a large industrial complex seemingly by the ocean – and he says, “This is a sand dune mine out in Richards Bay. We re-built this whole site out of photographs and drone videos – so it’s visually accurate.”
The animation reveals a 3D environment that can be explored as if on foot. As key sites and pieces of equipment are passed, they light up, revealing important safety information and virtual tasks to test the user’s knowledge. Items of machinery can be viewed in the minutest detail – including exploded views and demonstrations of how pieces of equipment fit together.
“With places like this, you’re dealing with situations where safety is crucial to the success of the industry. With VR and immersive technology, we make training cheaper, quicker and more effective: the ability to retain and use new information goes off the charts when you have a ‘real’, hands-on experience of it.
“Not only this, but we are often needing to train people for high-pressure, high-stakes situations that are impossible to recreate in reality.”
Hocker thinks the possible implications of this for the production and broadcast industries are clear.
“Think of an OB (outside broadcasting) van,” he says. “We could build a CAD model of the van, including all the equipment – all the routers, all the switches, everything – and have people train virtually to become comfortable with how to operate all the complex gear in there. We could do simulated faults, and run tasks where people have to fix them; we could build programs that show people how to properly clean, store and maintain the equipment and the van.
“For live events – where you have a big crew and planning and synchronisation are everything – we could rig up every crew member and allow them to get a feel for the venue where the broadcast is going to take place.”
He speculates about some more potential uses – such as location scouting and casting, where the need for physical travel could be mitigated using immersive technology – and he says that these possibilities will only grow as the next phase of VR becomes developed.
“Augmented reality, known as AR, is the next evolution of VR,” he says. Devices, such as the Microsoft HoloLens, will start to operate like “QR code readers on steroids”, allowing users to layer a virtual environment onto a real one.
It is clear from our conversation that Hocker is passionate about the rise of VR and immersive technologies, and the impact they can have on training and skills development across all industries. He shows me a virtual reality app his company are producing for Vodacom to help train forklift drivers.
“People often think of VR as ‘the future’,” he says, “but it’s not. We have it now, and it works.”