Mumbai: There is nothing striking as yet about the two mid-sized rooms in the 150,000 sq. ft building on the 5.5-acre campus of Whistling Woods International (WWI), a film, communication and media arts institute. A couple of virtual reality (VR) headsets and VR cameras are strewn about, and a team of youngsters sitting on the floor discuss some plans.
Yet, the belief in the nascent VR market has been strong enough for Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd to partner with Whistling Woods to set up this Development Lab dedicated to the VR and Augmented Reality (AR) industry. The lab at Mumbai’s Film City in Goregaon, named ‘Whistling Woods Jio VR Lab’, is expected to be officially inaugurated by Mukesh Ambani’s son Akash Ambani this month.
“This lab is still in the process of being set up. It will be a few months before we can get everything in place," explains Chaitanya Chinchlikar, vice-president of business development at Whistling Woods which was founded by filmmaker Subhash Ghai. The idea is to create the first generation of cinematic VR filmmakers in the Indian film, media and entertainment industry, says Chinchlikar, who is also the chief technology officer at Whistling Woods, besides being VP, strategic development at Mukta Arts Ltd.
“Reliance Jio has given us a three-year commitment to begin with," says Chinchlikar who points out that the telco already has a lot of experience in the VR arena. For instance, the Reliance Jio phone launch and Reliance Industries Ltd’s 40th annual general meeting on 21 July 2017, were broadcast live in 360-degree VR. Moreover, last November, the UK-based Birmingham City University said Reliance Jio had plans to launch its own VR app in 2018 and was hoping to rope in experts from the university. Last, but not the least, Reliance Jio has a lot of bandwidth (read: 5G or fifth generation network) that will help in speeding up VR projects while reducing latency times.
The Lab, according to Chinchlikar, hopes to work with the Indian film and media industry in many ways, including conducting monthly seminars and workshops for them. “We will also develop a curriculum for Cinematic VR, which will be taught to all students of WWI, making them India’s first generation of VR Filmmakers," adds Chinchlikar.
VR/AR is the fourth platform, after films/theatre, television and digital, according to Chinchlikar who believes VR will become ubiquitous by 2020-21 by when he hopes the Whistling Woods students will be “industry-ready with VR content". However, there are quite a few challenges to overcome when dealing with VR/AR content. For one, if a story can be told as effectively in any other format, it should be. “Just because something can be done in 360VR, doesn’t mean it should," cautions Chinchlikar. Second, fiction narrative content for VR is at a highly nascent stage and there is “no format for the same" as yet.
To address these issues, the lab will work with students and industry professionals (including Whistling Woods alumni) to “create multiple fiction / narrative short videos in ‘working-under-supervision’ model", says Chinchlikar. Moreover, Whistling Woods is a member of the India chapter of the VR Industry Forum (VRIF) and a member of the Production Guidelines Task Force. VRIF is a global collective of leading organizations in VR. Its goal is to further the widespread availability of high quality audiovisual VR experiences and establish guidelines for security, interoperability, distribution and production of VR content.
“This (partnership with Reliance Jio) is a first-of-its-kind example of industry-academia partnership in R&D for the media and entertainment industry," says Chinchlikar, who concludes with a smile, “The lab will never be ready. We will always have something new."