The path of least cost/energy

We've passed that inflection point in the cost/quality curve of visual effects where it is almost always more cost effective now to use compositing than to use physical locations, props, and extras. Not the case yet for actors, but you can still save a lot of money on everything else. It's amazing how much of the mundane shots in almost every TV series now are just executed in a computer.

This a precursor of what virtual reality will do to reality given all the shadow costs of reality. A producer ordering VFX in place of sending a crew on location is pursuing the most cost-efficient strategy. What Tyler Cowen refers to as the complacent class of people sitting at home watching Netflix on a Friday night rather than paying to go out to a crowded public place is also just cost efficient (or energy efficient) behavior.

The Good Dinosaur

But there was absolutely no way to do the number of sequences featuring big landscape shots that Sohn wanted, using Pixar’s traditional process, said Munier. They couldn’t design and render that much landscape in the time they had. And meanwhile, Sohn had fallen in love with the Jackson Valley on his research trips to Wyoming, and basically wanted to set the film there.
 
Enter the U.S. Geological Survey, which posts incredible amounts of topographical data to its website—including the height above sea level of all of the land features, and lots of satellite images. So Munier and his team tried downloading a lot of the USGS data and putting it into their computer, and then using that to “render” the real-life landscape. And it worked: They were able to take a classic Ansel Adams photograph of the Grand Tetons and duplicate it pretty closely using their computer-generated landscape. And with this data, they could point a digital “camera” anywhere, in a 360-degree rotation, and get an image.
 
“We ended up downloading over 65,000 square miles of USGS data,” said Munier. This “gave us the sense of scope for [Arlo’s] journey in the film.”
 

Informative Charlie Jane Anders' piece on the making of the Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur out this Thanksgiving. Because Pixar pushes on the bleeding edge of what's possible with technology,  each of their movies reflects a bit of what's just possible during the several years prior to release, though never at the expense of story.

Judging by the trailers, they've achieved a new level of photorealism in landscapes. Just watching it on my retina MBP, some of those trees and leaves and grass look just a penny short of real. If you removed the characters, who are rendered more cartoonish in style, and imagine an environment like this rendered in virtual reality at that resolution (not possible today, but not far future anymore), you can almost see how someone might choose the blue pill.

Disrupting reality

Most television viewers don't realize just how much of what they watch contains a lot of visual FX, or “virtual reality” if you will. Check out this reel from Stargate Studios.

Sometimes, the only thing that's “real” is the main actor. Increased computing power and advances in visual effects software and techniques mean we're only going to see more and more productions turn to the trusty green screen. More and more, the cost of shooting against a green screen and drawing in a background is lower than shooting on location. That's a sea change that has happened more quickly than most viewers realize.

It's not a short step, but perhaps not more than a few vigorous hops and a few cranks of Moore's Law to imagine the same convenience tradeoff happening in our own lives, the swap of physical reality for virtual reality. As long as the quality is good enough, the lower cost/higher convenience solution wins out. For virtual reality, that bar is not to match reality exactly. It is simply belief.

We're finally at the point in history when we have an alternative to the shadow costs of the real world.

Reality is bloated.
 
It started off as a lean, mean MVP with a minimal feature set — hunting and gathering, procreating, a little story-telling around the fire, fighting for dear life — but now every last use case has been crammed in. There are so many layers of cruft on this thing, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all.
 
This is one of the ultimate drivers of consumer VR — not (just) to provide experiences we couldn’t have otherwise, but to replace many of the crappy physical experiences we slog through every day. Business travel. Middle school. Conferences. You know: pain relievers, not vitamins.
 
There’s been no choice until now, since we’ve been living in a platform monoculture where the monopoly provider hasn’t had any competition to keep it honest. Thankfully, that’s about to change.
 

That's Beau Cronin on unbundling reality. It's perhaps one of the greatest disruptions we'll live through this century.