‘Creative Control’ director on our augmented reality

New film imagines life in NYC with Google Glass-like tech (but better).

a scene from creative control
A scene from CREATIVE CONTROL. Magnolia Pictures

Writer-director Ben Dickinson doesn’t consider himself a tech aficionado — “more of a reluctant adopter,” he says — but he is still extremely interested in the cross-section of how augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will intersect with our everyday lives.

In his most recent film, Creative Control, which debuts Friday, Dickinson stars as an advertising executive working on a campaign for Augmenta, a pair of futuristic AR glasses. He soon learns these specs also create a virtual facsimile of his best friend’s girlfriend, turning what could be a light-hearted take on technology into a relevant conversation about our future lives.

We spoke with Dickinson about his thoughts on AR vs. VR, and the modeling of the Augmenta glasses.

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Popular Science: Was this your first film to feature either AR or VR?

Ben Dickinson: I actually did a VR piece last year called Waves, that stars Reggie [Watts, also in Creative Control] and premiered at Sundance. I enjoyed it, and like making it, so my ambivalence towards the medium is turning into a curiosity.

So this isn’t the last time you’ll delve into the tech?

Well, Reggie and I are doing another VR piece this year, and I am looking forward to it. It’s a different way of thinking than linear cinema. You have less control as the director in terms of telling people about where you want them to look. Or even less control of manipulating how you want them to feel. It’s more about creating an environment full of suggestions, and that is a different way to approach creativity.

Is that a good thing, in terms of sparking creativity?

It’s a little more like theater or dance. You are literally in a sphere, so it is more circular, but the opportunity for storytelling is more circular than film. I don’t know if the technology is there yet.

Director Benjamin Dickinson
Director Benjamin Dickinson on the set of CREATIVE CONTROL. Magnolia Pictures

How do you mean?

In terms of resolution. I am waiting for that to catch up. We are at the fun, early days of silent film, a moment to help create the grammar of VR as an artistic medium.

Were the Augmenta glasses your idea?

Jake Lodwick, who plays Gabe in Creative Control, is the founder of Vimeo, and he helped me conceptualize that product. He came up with the name Augmenta, and the concept was: if there weren’t any physical limitations, what would AR spectacles look like? And how would they function?

That sounds like a lot of fun to come up with.

We thought it would be interesting if the glasses had translucent retinal projectors shooting images back into the eyeball to deal with the depth of focus problem. And it would be natural if UI was seamless, and invisible and light, so not to get in the way of your vision. We actually wrote a users guide, as if the Augmenta glasses were a real product.

It would be cool if you could release that, along with the glasses.

Yeah, it would be, and not have any limitations of manufacturing. That would be fun to do. Steven Allen made the frames and we should do a limited edition set with the glasses and guide. There will be a product like Augmenta on the market in five years anyway. The glasses will come sooner than a viable AR contact. Glasses are already a fashion statement, and that is what I was dealing with in the movie too. Going into the ocular nerve is much farther away, and I wanted to do something that made more practical sense at the moment.

Still from Creative Control
The movie follows an advertising executive in near-future NYC who gets his hands on a pair of computerized, augmented reality glasses. Creative Control/Magnolia Pictures

So you think AR will proceed before VR?

I think that augmented reality will replace your smartphones, and VR is like recreation. It could have therapeutic aspects, but I am more curious to see the evolution of the smartphone, which will become like your face computer. I also think there is something more seductive and strange about an avatar of a person you know show up in your day to day reality as opposed to VR.

If you go into virtual reality to hang out with Sophie [the aforementioned best friend’s girlfriend], there is a clear delineation between waking life and virtual life, but at the point where those mesh, things become confusing. At the time I wrote and then shot Creative Control, the only thing around was Google Glass, so I didn’t have the opportunity to play around with anything. I maybe tried the earliest iteration of Google Glass, so the movie was shot based on some research and speculation.

Did that free you in a sense?

Well, it did mean we could take artistic license to whatever we needed the technology to be. It’s interesting: Reggie and I went to Meta, a company in San Francisco, and saw what they are working on. They gave us the demo of the newest headset, which was spectacular. It was pretty convincing. The resolution is there, the immersiveness is there, the 3D tracking is there.

So will AR and VR change filmmaking then?

I don’t think it will, not in the form of feature narrative, per se, but maybe it’ll become more rarified. People still go to the ballet and the opera. I think of both as a collaborative tool. AR is amazing for shot diagrams and shot lists, and working more in physical space with people rather than on flat screens. The potential is to make computing more physical and tactile.

But for AR to become a true art narrative device, I think it’ll happen. If the experience is where people don’t have to be in a headset and just be in space with the people and share with them, if that is AR, it will happen sooner. We’ll lose the craft of directing the camera and the lenses, and that is what makes cinema relevant. It’ll have to be a new form, not a replacement for cinema. And the person who will make this masterpiece is 12 years old right now.

Do you think there will ever be an Oscar for best VR or AR film?

I imagine there might be for VR, but the emergence of that will be shorter. So far, 20-30 minutes are the threshold. AR will be more fun for games, and playing stuff, and I imagine a game called Ball, or Sphere, with me and another person and AR glasses with digital spheres anywhere we are.

Or a little tiny elephant companion that sits on my desk and talks to me — that is how I think of AR. It is more decorative and game oriented. But who knows? Do I want to sit in my living room with a John Cassavetes drama unfolding around me with my favorite actors? Maybe.