BY Victoria Spencer — January 21, 2022

No one knows for sure what will be the next great development in storytelling technology, but many are placing their bets on virtual reality. Since the Oculus Rift launched on Kickstarter in 2012, dozens of VR-related startups have emerged, creating everything from VR treadmills to documentaries.

Undeniably, VR has some flaws. It’s expensive, so most people can’t access it at home. And since most VR experiences have to use computer-generated images, their representation of humans can come off a little bit creepy. 8i, a VR startup based in New Zealand, seeks to resolve these issues. With their new software, they hope to create VR experiences that tend less toward the virtual and more toward reality.

8i’s technology revolves around accessibility. The technology uses normal, off-the-shelf video cameras, which users set up to film an object, person, or animal from several different angles. 8i’s software converts multiple digital videos to light field format and reconstructs the streams as volumetric 3D video. The result is a figure that viewers can interact with physically, as if it exists in front of them.

8i hopes that its software will eventually enter the mainstream, enabling anyone to easily create their own VR experiences. The platform requires as little as two video cameras to collect footage, though more angles provide a better quality result—8i uses two dozen in its studios in Los Angeles and New Zealand.

Beyond being financially accessible to a wider audience, 8i’s software also accommodates a level of emotional accessibility that the industry has rarely seen before. Because the images consist of real footage rather than CGIs, they’re much more authentic. PSFK reporter Michelle Hum recounts her experience watching an 8i-generated woman sharing a sentimental moment with her virtual baby: “[The woman] had kind eyes, but since sentimental moments make me uncomfortable, I found myself avoiding eye contact. This is a strange reaction because the woman in front of me was just a collection of pixels.”

The woman Hum mentions is one of 100 virtual portraits 8i has created in its new project, #100humans—the first 3D video portrait series. 8i is recording 100 artists, innovators, athletes, and educators talking about their passions and converting the footage to 3D video. The project showcases a wide range of figures, from a DJ to an entrepreneur to a juggler. Viewers can watch the portraits on a normal computer screen, using the mouse to rotate the images, or with an Oculus Rift. 8i claims that viewing the series in 3D feels like standing in a room, interacting with these people in virtual space.

If Hum’s reaction to the portrait of a mother and child is any indicator, it seems possible for viewers of the series to forget that 8i’s figures aren’t present in the physical world. In fact, Hum’s reported sense of unease suggests an earlier event in techy history: the showing of one of the first commercial films, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, to the public. Rumor has it that upon seeing a train chugging toward them onscreen, audience members ran out of the theater in a panic. True novelty—and true realism—provoke extreme responses. 8i might be onto something.