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Digital Domain Chairman Peter Chou and CEO Daniel Seah talk about VR

The name Digital Domain might not ring a bell, but if you’ve shelled out for tickets to a blockbuster movie any time in the past two decades, chances are you’ve seen some of the firm’s work. The Los Angeles, California-based effects company co-founded by director James Cameron has produced computer-generated special effects for some of the highest-grossing films in recent years, including Titanic, Apollo 13, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Iron Man 3, and X-Men Apocalypse. 

And the firm’s been celebrated for its achievements. Digital Domain artists and technologists have been recognized with 37 Clio Awards, 22 AICP awards, and 9 Cannes Lion Awards, and seven Academy Awards, including three for Best Visual Effects. But as it happens, the firm’s work extends far beyond the silver screen.

Digital Domain is not just a CGI company. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company announced a new episodic virtual reality series, Monkey King, starring the mythological Chinese character Sun Wukong. The series, which the studio says chronicles a “new chapter” for the anthropomorphized simian, will debut later this year on HTC’s Vive headset and untethered mobile VR headsets powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor.

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To talk about the challenges — and early successes — of the virtual reality industry, Digital Domain Chairman Peter Chou and CEO Daniel Seah and sat down with Digital Trends for a spell at Qualcomm’s booth.

The true promise of virtual reality, Chou said, lies in its ability to deliver an unprecedented level of immersion. “Virtual reality is a new medium […] much different than existing traditional media,” he said. “It’s very empathetic.”

But that empathy isn’t inherent, he stressed. Building engagement requires a concerted effort and special attention. “You have to guide the viewer to what you want to show,” Chou said, using  “Monkey King” as an illustration. “When we show it to people, it’s like something happening next to them. VR is going to offer that kind of experience.

Seah concurred. “It’s all about storytelling — purely about storytelling,” he said. “It’s about how you experience it and how you review the contents in a variety of ways.”

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Feature-length content isn’t the only form of virtual reality content with which Digital Domains has experimented, recently. The studio announced the Zeus, a 360-degree camera boasting the ability to record 8k footage and live-stream 360-degree video at 4k, earlier this year. And it acquired a majority in VR firm Immersive Media Ventures two years ago, seeking to establish a lead in production equipment, facilities, and artists ready to produce VR experiences.

On December 30, Digital Domain partnered with one of China’s leading online video streaming platforms, Tencent Video, to live-stream pop singer Faye Wong in her Faye Wong Moments Live 2016 concert in China. More than 100,000 viewers paid the equivalent of $4 each for a high-definition 360-degree stream through Tencent QQ LiveMusic and the WhaleyVR app.

And this past summer, Digital Domain dipped a toe in sponsorship. It streamed the international games in Rio. And in the fall, it broadcasted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert.

“We’ve proven that we can find an iconic partner and do a sponsorship, provide free VR content for the end consumer, and receive a margin back from the sponsor” Seah said.

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Digital Domains is also testing the waters for a subscription model. Down the line, the company envisions a pay-for-play style for virtual reality content — a sort of “HBO for VR,” Seah said.

“Very successful companies in history, whether platform companies or business companies, were content companies first,” said Seah. “They way they became a successful platform or distribution company was to become strong at doing content. Content makes a difference.”

“Our strength is content,” Seah said, “And we’ve been exploring potential business models for VR content.”

Seah said the primary “The differentiation between Digital Domain and other companies that perform live broadcasts is our CG special effects,” Seah said. “That’s the ideal consumer experience for VR content — the environment can be transformed into something else.”

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As for the speed at which VR platforms are progressing, Seah put to rest the notion that unpredictable shifts are slowing innovation. “Most VR hardware today is going to see a massive improvement in the coming years,” he said. “But it’s not just VR. Technology in general is moving so fast. 10 years ago, we couldn’t imagine that the internet would be in our daily life. We couldn’t predict that we would play games on our mobile phones.”

“We have a tremendous amount of faith in VR,” he said. “We plan to produce ten pieces of VR content by the end of this year.”