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Virtual Reality Streaming Tools and Workflow, Part 1: Gear and Pre-Production

In this series of articles, I will discuss the tools and workflows that I used in a recent testing project to see how VR compares to 2D video and audio as an educational tool.

At Streaming Media West in New York last May, I walked by the Mobeon booth and watched live virtual reality streaming before my eyes. The experience stuck with me, and like many video producers, I became very intrigued with VR. About four months later, I was at a planning meeting with my wife, my youngest daughter, and her science teacher, planning my daughter’s science project for the year. Now a sophomore at Galax High, my geeky daughter suggested a VR project, mostly because she wanted to get her hands on an Oculus headset. Recalling my Mobeon walk by, and confusing possible for practical, I blurted, “Let's produce an experiment to test how VR compares to 2D video and audio as an educational tool.” Her teacher immediately signed off, and we were committed.

A few days later, I called Mark Alamares, CEO of Mobeon, and author of the November 2015 Streaming Media cover story Is Virtual Reality Streaming Ready for Primetime. Mostly I wanted the lay of the land, but I also wanted to know if Mark could help me get the tools to produce the video necessary for the tests. Surprisingly, Mark was less than enthusiastic about the idea, advising that the state of the technology was more bleeding-edge than production-ready. By that point, of course, it was too late to back out. I was going to have to make it work.

In this series of articles, I will discuss the tools and workflows that we used to make this happen. The first article will discuss the equipment that I used, and was written after some testing, and before the actual shoot. Ditto for the second article, which will detail operation within VideoStitch Vahana VR, the program that accepts the input from the multiple camera rig and stitches it into a VR presentation. The third article will discuss the shoot, the tests, and the lessons learned.

As a caveat, these articles don’t attempt to provide an overview of the market in any sense. Basically it's here are the tools that we used, and here’s how we used them. For an overview of particularly the camera side of the VR market, check out the aforementioned VR article by Alamares.

Overview

At a high level, to produce and consume VR, you need three elements. First, you need a camera, or camera rig, capable of capturing a 360º view. Second, you need the software to stitch it all together and to output a file for viewing. Third, you need a viewing environment and possibly viewing hardware. Given the extreme input/output requirements of VR production--like six simultaneous HDMI inputs from the Go Pros--you'll need a very hefty computer to capture the incoming streams.

Mobeon did come through with the camera and production station necessary to make all this happen. All of the hardware that I'm discussing is available for rental from Mobeon, as are the consulting services necessary to make it happen. For the record, I originally looked at the system at Streaming Media West, and spoke with a tech there. The tech spent about an hour with me on the phone once I got the system in hand, but from then, I was on my own.

Let’s take a look at the gear and software that I used, and the viewing environment.

The Gear

To shoot the videos, I used the Freedom 360 mount shown in Figure 1 (below) with six GoPro Hero4 cameras. The rig itself costs $499, while the cameras cost about $350 each, bringing the total cost of the camera rig to about $2,600. You’ll need a special tripod or mount, plus a six port USB charger to keep the cameras running. Note that Mobeon inserted a fan into the rig to help prevent overheating, but after about an hour or so during testing, a camera or two would shut off. I’m glad this happened beforehand, so I knew to plan accordingly for the shoot.

Figure 1. The Freedom 360 rig with cameras installed. Click the image to see it at full size,

Alamares supplied both software and a rig to run it on. The software was VideoStitch Vahana VR, which costs $2,695 and is in charge of capturing and stitching the six incoming HDMI streams into a cohesive presentation (see YouTube demo below). In the second article, I’ll describe how the software works. Figure 2 (below) shows a screen grab from a YouTube video you can watch to get a feel for overall operation.

Figure 2. See the Freedom 360 video here.

The computer was a large portable system from Shinobi Systems called the Virtual Reality Station 16-16 (cost: about $25,000) which can accept both eight HDMI inputs and eight HD-SDI inputs (Figure 3, below). As you can see, the unit is massive, with three full HD displays that unfold out from very large lunchpail design. The system is powered by a 3.0 GHz i7-5690 CPU with 8 cores and 16-threads running 64-bit Windows 10 with 32 GB of RAM. Graphics is supplied by an NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan X, which retails for around $1,000.

Figure 3. The Shinobi Systems VR Station 16-16. Click the image to see it at full size.

VideoStitch has well-documented system requirements. The recommended capture cards for GoPro HDMI inputs come from Magewell, while VideoStitch recommends BlackMagic DeckLink gear for HD-SDI capture. The Shinobi system came with two Magewell XI400DE-HDMI PCI Express Video Capture Cards ($899 each at B&H). However, HD-SDI capture was supplied by an AJA Corvid 88 8-channel I/O card that costs $2,795 at B&H, with HD-SDI output supplied by the BlackMagic Design DeckLink 4K Extreme 12G. You can certainly build your own system around the Vahana software, but if you want it to be portable you’ll need a very hefty system very much like the one Shinobi supplied.

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