About 270 miles southwest from Las Vegas, where Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich is at CES unveiling his company’s latest developments, the lights are off in a massive studio space where many of those wonders are waiting to be used by the biggest names in Hollywood entertainment.
Located in soundstage 25 of the MBS Media Campus in Manhattan Beach, Intel’s Immersive Entertainment Labs is taking its first, tentatives steps in a potentially billion-dollar bet on the future of entertainment, and Intel’s move into a leading role under the klieg lights in Tinseltown. And helping it along the way will be studios like Paramount Pictures, which is one of the first to sign on to bring talent there.
The architect of Intel’s immersive entertainment gamble is Diego Prilusky, a visual effects artist and designer who landed at Intel as part of the company’s acquisition of Replay Technologies, where Prilusky served as creative director and vice president of product after a decade long career in Hollywood working on films like Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Replay Technologies created the 360-degree replay technology system, freeD, and was acquired by Intel in 2016. Since then, Prilusky has been working with Intel on bringing that motion capture technology to a broader audience. A mission that’s culminated in the Entertainment Labs.
“The project evolved post-acquisition as an initiative to expand the type of immersive video we’ve been doing in sports into a broader content creation,” Prilusky tells me. “We were a small startup growing into a big startup. The big thing was to invest in accelerating and scaling this technology. Volumetric and immersive media is a new type of content that we’re exploring.”
Krzanich referred to this in somewhat more simpler terms on stage over at CES: immersive media, he says, is basically a “massive data problem.”
It’s an ambitious project and set in an equally ambitious space. For the demonstration at CES, Intel had built a replica of the exterior of a town square from the mid-to-late 19th century, replete with saloon and jail, and all the tumbleweed and dust that a director would need to evoke the Wild West and Hollywood’s golden age.
While the set design harkens back to days of yore in Western lore, the technology powering the new facility on soundstage 25 is all of the latest and greatest that Intel and its partners had to offer.
Inside the 25,000 square foot studio space, is a 10,000 square foot volumetric capture space (where the Old West town square was built), which Intel claims is the world’s largest. Snaking through and around that volumetric space is 5.1 miles of fiber cables connected to 10 petabytes of onsite storage. It’s capturing information relayed from the movement of objects through 1 billion points of light to capture images recorded in the space.
“One of the key goals is to work directly with the entertainment industry and the community of content creators that would be a key driver of this experience,” Prilusky says. And Intel has already lined up one of Hollywood’s biggest and most celebrated studios as a partner in its new entertainment experiment.
Hardware at the new Intel studio
Diego Prilusky, head of Intel’s new Immersive Labs, talking to colleagues
The light rig at Intel’s new immersive soundstage
The motion capture dome covers 10,000 square feet
Over five miles of cable runs through Intel’s immersive studio space
The motion capture equipment Intel is using for its immersive soundstage
1 billion points of light are used to capture the volumetric data recorded inside the immersive studio space
Intel is by no means the first tech company to move in on Hollywood and the content industry. Microsoft has been both building and working with third parties to help film producers develop virtual reality content alongside their more traditional filmmaking; and Amazon has also been investing in building out mixed reality filming facilities and related tech in LA. The idea for these companies is to provide the technology to underpin production company’s multiscreen strategies. As it gets harder for a film to attract audiences into traditional movie theaters, and they view content instead on interactive screens, studios are looking for more ways to leverage that with games, immersive content and more.
Paramount Pictures, the studio behind The Lost Weekend, Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Godfather, Chinatown, Grease, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Forrest Gump and Titanic, is one of the first to sign on with Intel.
According to Paramount’s new resident Futurist Ted Schilowitz (who previously held the same position at 21st Century Fox), it just makes sense for the studio.
“My tack on everything is that it’s all about exploration and experimentation,” Schilowitz tells me. “If you put yourself in the position to be an early learner and an early explorer you end up with a better strategy to position yourself for the future.”
No one is certain what the future of immersive entertainment will look like, and given the anemic numbers immersive storytelling has managed to put up, it’s not even clear that there will be a future for immersive storytelling.
Schilowitz is confident that no matter the stakes, studios need to be experimenting and exploring with the new technologies so they can understand what the future may hold, if only to figure out what the next big business opportunity might be for filmmakers as less and less people consume movies in the traditional way.
“We’re the first big studio to take a stab at ‘What does this mean?’” Schilowitz says of the Paramount partnership with Intel. And that, in itself, is significant.
“There’s this evolution of how people are going to consume media. As we move from displaying and watching things on flat video devices where does the technology take us? In the early days we could force your eyes to believe that it is three dimensional… the next logical step is how do you make video capture responsive in that way,” says Schilowitz. “We’ve done that with CGI graphics which is why the highest end of VR is CGI. What we can’t do yet is demonstrate a pipeline which does the same thing for video content.”
That’s where the Intel studio comes in. Schilowitz tells me that Paramount is planning in the full range of talent that it works with, from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg to first time directors that are coming up to put the Intel studio through its paces.
One director in particular whose work could lend itself to Intel’s new studio space is Neill Blomkamp, whose work is experimental and who has already done projects with UnityVR.
“It’s not that we have a specific course of action related to this,” Schilowitz says. “It’s that you better put yourself on the course. That’s why we like to do things early and that’s why when it’s time to talk about this publicly… We think that movies are in a constant state of change and evolution.”
The evolution of the movie industry was at the forefront of Prilusky’s mind when he started working on the project, which is why the first experiment for the studio was set in the Old West Town.
“We took a concerted reference to the first motion pictures recorded in history, which is the Muybridge piece of the horse in motion,” says Prilusky. “We love the analogy of looking into the past and taking that into the future.”
The soundstage isn’t Intel’s only play for immersive entertainment. Late last year the company unveiled an agreement with Turner Broadcasting and the National Basketball Association to bring NBA games into VR. That followed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee to develop technology solutions (including virtual reality applications) for the Olympic Games.
For Intel and rival chip manufacturer AMD success in gaming and entertainment had been elusive as the two were overshadowed by rival manufacturer Nvidia. But a new partnership between the two historic rivals may undo all of that and open the door for greater gains by both against Nvidia’s graphics processing juggernaut.
And as for the future of this immersive content, despite VR’s poor performance, Prilusky is confident that this massive investment will pay off.
“We are looking to the future,” he says. “The way we’re looking to immersive media and interactive content… it requires or looking at different types of approaches or storytelling methodologies… are we looking to creating the next type of feature film… for sure… are they going to look like they look today? Most definitely not.”