“This is the only button you should use, right here,” I explain.
“Don’t press anything else.”
Anthony Walsh nods, but he’s only half paying attention. Each camera has three identical buttons and there are six identical cameras, for a total of 18 identical buttons.
Walsh’s instincts magnetically pull his eyes to the horizon.
“The button with the orange tape on the side is for the master camera. Wait for it to boot up, then press…”
“Here comes the set of the day!”
Manoa Drollet throttles the jet ski and the tow rope whips taut. Walsh is yanked from the side of the boat into the thundering Tahitian lineup. Indeed, the largest set of the morning darkens the horizon. Drollet’s little brother, Matahi, is also on the rope, about 10 feet in front of Walsh. They’re attempting to tandem tow into double-overhead-plus Teahupo’o carrying a virtual reality prototype rig.
Perhaps this has all become too complicated.
As Drollet arcs the pair into position, Walsh frantically presses buttons as his eyeballs ping-pong from the two-story beast cresting behind him to the multiplicity of tiny, blinking red lights in his hand.
The prototype camera ball is affixed to the neck of an extendable metal pole. A safety tether runs from the costly camera ball to Walsh’s wrist. But, against a double-overhead Teahupo’o set, who are we kidding?
Matahi and Walsh let go of the rope, draw their lines, and drop deep into the watery cavern.
Too deep. The wave clamps.
Several long moments later, Walsh and Matahi bob to the foamy surface. Walsh holds up a lonesome pole. Somewhere in the violent centrifugal chaos, the camera ball was decapitated and the tether snapped.
“I don’t think it was recording anyway,” says Walsh, shrugging off the beating back on the boat.
I gingerly hand him our backup unit. It’s older, more unreliable, and our last chance to get the shot, or else we fly home empty-handed. Walsh listens intently to my explanation of how to set this specific camera ball to record.
“Easy as,” he responds, flatly.
Easy may not be the most accurate of adjectives.
That was September of 2014. Let me rewind to September of 2009.
There’s a knock on my office door.
Nicholas Woodman, the exuberant and eternally optimistic leader of our small camera company, pokes his head in.
“What do you know about 3D?”
It’s a corner office with a pleasant view of the countryside in Half Moon Bay. I’ve only just officially started the job, and even then, I remember thinking that there’s something about this idea, this tiny camera, that feels big. But no one imagined the behemoth it would become, not even Woodman.
I’d met Woodman on a local chicken ferry out to the Mentawais in 2002. Back then, water cameras were expensive, fragile, and cumbersome, but we still wanted to document and share our experiences out there. Woodman used a broken leash and a series of rubber bands to strap a disposable water camera to his wrist, enabling him to surf and snap pictures at the same time. The results were good enough that he wanted to start a “wrist strap” company, which adapted to any disposable water camera on the market. But Kodak and Fuji refused to allow their logos to be printed on the packaging, and that idea was crushed. Instead of giving up, Woodman flew to China to source a reusable water camera. His wrist strap company became an upstart digital camera company, one that would ultimately outsell all its rivals. It’s funny how sometimes the worst thing in the moment ends up being the best thing, though perhaps the pendulum can swing both ways.
Post-it notes litter the desk in my corner office. Ideas, tasks, calibration charts, and color wheels. It’s organized chaos. “360 Cities,” scrawled on one particular note, was an app that stitched together photo panoramas, like a new thing called Google Street View. We riff back and forth about creating something like that for a moving image, to be able to freely look around inside a video. Beside me is a bookshelf full of older prototype cameras with various experimental wide-angle lenses, duct taped on for testing. This had been the camera’s real breakthrough moment, the 170-degree, fisheye lens that became the signature look of the brand.
Woodman pauses at my office door before exiting.
“Let’s start with 3D,” he says. “There’s a lot of buzz about it. Work on camera sync with the engineers in Shenzhen. Get your prototype together with footage to play on the screens at the Vegas NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show in April.”
His smile becomes mischievous.
“And clean up your desk, man. You can’t possibly keep track of anything with shit everywhere?”
I turn back to my screen. In the middle is a new Post-it note in Woodman’s handwriting:
“Show them what they’ve never seen before.”
Time is not real. I don’t mean that in some philosophical way. It’s just a fact you must accept when attempting to sync multiple camera systems. Even if you have two cameras pressed to record at the exact same time, one camera will record a hair faster or slower than the other. The difference may not be perceptible in a single second, but after several minutes of recording, the two cameras will drift further and further apart, creating noticeable discontinuity. When you have a half-dozen cameras, this discontinuity grows exponentially.
The wave of 3D receded as fast as it came. But the idea of multiple synced tiny cameras was left on the shoreline, unnoticed by many, except for a mustachioed Englishman by the name of Tim
Macmillan. It was in April of 2010 when Macmillan and his brother, Cal, stopped by our booth at NAB in Las Vegas. GoPro had arrived in the consciousness of professional filmmakers and they were swarming with wallets wide open. A dozen of us worked to contain the onslaught. Meanwhile, Sony, Canon, and Nikon were glaring over at our booth, wondering how in the hell this little company was selling multiples of the same camera to a single customer. In the evenings, the 12 of us would empty wads of cash from our pockets onto the hotel mattress where a wild-eyed Woodman would dole out portions so we could celebrate in the casino before waking up the next morning in a fog and doing it again.
“Have you ever synced more than two cameras together?” yelled the jolly Englishman in my ear.
The cacophony around us went silent, our blaring booth music fading to a low hum.
“I want to use your cameras to stop time. Photogrammetry. You know, Matrix shit.”
He really did have a fabulous mustache, one that demanded your attention.
“What I want is a pure description of space without being influenced by time,” Macmillan expounds while drifting on a tin boat over Fijian waters. It was June of 2011, on Namotu Island with Mick Fanning. The sweltering salt air will corrode any open circuitry and we have 30 open-circuit boards attached to 30 cameras along a 12-foot rail. Like a single bad bulb in a string of Christmas lights, we were constantly one electron fritz away from the whole system going down. This new experimental camera array creates numerous possibilities where a video editor could combine the footage in order to rotate around an object which is itself frozen, allowing a wrinkle in time—not unlike the famous Neo-dodging bullets scene in The Matrix.
In Macmillan’s mind, the holy grail was a 50/50 array shot in which
Fanning was frozen in a barrel. Half the array rig would be poking out of the wave face with the other half cutting through the water and wrapping behind him. As the action temporarily froze, the audience would be transported along the rail and then through the water’s surface behind the frozen barrel. It was a shot no one had ever seen before.
They still haven’t. The team tried and nearly decapitated a surfer or two, with the ridiculous camera rig getting sucked over the falls with them like a guillotine. But we did film a few keepers and several videos were created, one of which sprang viral online.
We continued to experiment with our 30-camera array for a few years, mainly for high-production events and shoots—X Games, Ken Block, and Kelly Slater. The shots were more of a brand flex, because the process was too expensive, cumbersome, and impractical for everyday videographers.
What did prove practical, however, was the Englishman with the mustache.
“It’s splash proof at best,” Macmillan warned me, “and certainly not waterproof.”
I echo this sentiment as I demonstrate to the surfers on a commercial shoot in the spring of 2013 in the Mentawais. Macmillan had taken his string of Christmas lights and wrapped them into a ball that emerged from a 3D printer and cost about $10,000 for the first prototype of our six-camera array system. It took two years to finally build what we called “spherical.” Time couldn’t move fast enough.
The surfers mention it looks heavy, but Mikala Jones is fascinated. He is a pioneer, both in the sense of exploring unknown wave locations and the techniques of recording them. He begins dancing with the spherical rig, balancing the weight and the camera positions, and discussing jet ski tow-in techniques.
“But we only get one shot at this, right?” he says, raising his brows. “If I lose it, it’s done?”
You’re probably thinking: Wouldn’t it be better to test this on, say, mountain bikes or squirrel suits or anything other than surfing? You’d be right, and we did. The shots were groundbreaking, but nothing is more immersive, or gets Woodman more excited, than being in a barrel. At this point, the spherical rig was still just a pet project in desperate need of funding. This was its Hail Mary.
We are primarily on this week-long production to film a new camera launch. Each morning, Jones raises an eyebrow asking to try the “new new.” By our last day, we have enough footage in the can, so we prep the prototype rig for use.
Dawn is just peeking over the horizon, and Bank Vaults is pulsing. We idle the jet ski past the peak and Jones slips into the morning glass. Three beeps from the master camera sets off a chorus of chirps from the other five cameras. We wait until we can’t wait anymore. The 3D-printed plastic doesn’t seal out the humidity and the lenses are beginning to fog.
The driver slingshots Jones into an outside set wave. He releases the rope, pumps over the folding crest, and then disappears under the curtain. The offshore spray glows gold. The surfers at the peak throw their hands in the air. There’s a collective breath hold. Jones is inside the barrel, obscured from our view as we race to the shoulder to meet him. But he isn’t there. We see him sputtering in the foam over the shallow reef. He’s swimming with both hands.
“I tried to hold on!” he yells.
The rig is nowhere to be seen. We are frantic. The jet ski driver madly circles the inside, looking for any sign. Foam. Bubbles. Then, the glint of camera glass pokes briefly above the surface before sinking under again. The air inside must’ve given the rig a last gasp of neutral buoyancy.
Back on the boat, it’s all hands on deck emptying the saltwater out of the rig, pulling the already corroding batteries out, and ejecting the memory cards before the thin metal receptors can rust. We douse them in freshwater and dry them in the sun. And miraculously, the cards remain readable.
For $10,000, we got one shot.
“Holy shit! Play that back again, in slow motion.”
We’re in a boardroom in front of a 95-inch TV. Woodman is freaking out. It’s been a month of work salvaging Jones’ un-made wave in the Mentawais. Once we downloaded the data, we used an obscure photo software to manually stitch six framegrabs together to make a template and then applied that to the next thousand frames, one by one. It was like going back to flipbook animation in elementary school, only we needed massive computer processors and several days to render a single 10-second clip. We were on the bleeding edge of camera innovation, just hoping the software would catch up.
“Go frame by frame, slowly,” Woodman says. “And move it around to look back into the wave.”
I tap the keyboard. Fifteen others in the boardroom squint and lean forward in their first barrel. Time has moved fast, or maybe it was just us. In five years, we’ve grown from a dozen to 800 employees. We’re on the brink of listing our company on the stock market. We have a new president and a new chief officer for every department. All nice people, but not cut from the same cloth. They understand numbers. And those numbers are telling us to appeal to a bigger demographic, untapped markets with larger pocketbooks. Soccer moms. That’s what the numbers say. But the images on the screen are telling us something different.
“Wow,” Woodman whistles. “Look at that lip coming down around him.”
His wild eyes break from the giant screen to look around the boardroom. They all look puzzled. Woodman laughs. “This is literally something you’ve never seen before.”
That was true. No one had.
Ungulate. It’s a pleasurable word to say. It rolls right off the tongue. un·gu·late | (noun). Ungulates are grazers—sheep, deer, elk, cows. These prey species have superb vision. Their eyes are set farther apart, so they can see over 300 degrees. Predators like lions or wolves can see about 200 degrees. Humans see a little less than 180 degrees, similar to our camera’s lens.
So, literally, no one in that boardroom had seen something like Jones’ barrel before. It was physically impossible.
“Isn’t this too complicated?” they ask. “How is this commercially viable? What’s our demographic here? This is just like 3D, which failed. Shouldn’t we put these funds somewhere else? What’s the ROI here?”
There was much bleating from the ungulates in the boardroom.
But Woodman still held the controlling shares of his company. The spherical project was green-lit. After leaping high-fives with Tim Macmillan, he told me he might be able to make a smaller spherical ball with only two cameras. I laugh incredulously.
“What was the differentiating factor for GoPro in the first place?”
“The wide-angle lens?”
“Precisely,” he smiles. “We need to go even wider.”
“Just don’t touch me, okay?” John John Florence warily eyes the headset.
“Just put it on!” The jeers come from Nathan Florence and Koa Smith. Anthony Walsh grins ear to ear.
It’s December of 2014 at the Surfer Poll Awards on Oahu. Florence pulls the VR headset over his eyes and the noise-canceling headphones slip over his ears. John John is teleported underwater. Waves crash overhead. The sound of reef crackles below. Translucent-blue water rises up to the verdant green mountains of Tahiti.
The world had caught up. Anyone could now upload VR to YouTube. Facebook had invested heavily in the launch of their new VR video platform. One could swim with sharks or fly on an eagle’s wings. One could bicycle over Spanish rooftops with Danny MacAskill or
heliboard in Alaska with Travis Rice. Miraculously, Walsh and Matahi had managed to capture a double-barrel virtual reality ride at
Teahupo’o that made a big splash for Facebook’s VR launch.
Humans rely most heavily on our sense of sight. Some researchers argue that it’s as much as 80 percent of an individual’s understanding of the world. After that comes hearing, then touch, then smell, then taste. Arguably, the two most relied-on senses can be simulated in a VR headset. But in the end, perhaps we’re just duping our own evolution?
John John’s head is on a swivel. Nathan and Koa stifle back laughter, having experienced this just five minutes ago. I hand them two spray bottles full of water. The third of our senses: touch. John John looks behind the virtual Anthony Walsh as the Teahupo’o wave behind him flexes and begins to inhale.
“Oh my God, it’s gonna spit,” John John murmurs.
And just as it does, Nathan and Koa spray him with water. The crowd erupts with laughter.
“You guys suck,” laughs John John, ripping the dripping VR headset off.
Virtual reality had finally arrived. The New York Times now offered The Daily 360. Facebook acquired the VR headset company Oculus for $2 billion. GoPro IPO’d and was soaring near a sunny $100 per share stock price. Goldman Sachs predicted a new VR market worth $80 billion by 2025. Was this a new technological frontier for civilization?
It’s funny how you don’t expect the pendulum to swing the other way.
Like Icarus, GoPro’s wings melted just as it reached that sunny valuation. Despite the cameras evolving from complex to simple and from cumbersome to dainty, despite automatic stitching software and gyro-enabled streaming on YouTube and Facebook with nothing more than your cell phone, VR didn’t really make a splash. People just didn’t get it.
Disembodied hands float in front of my face. They are my humanoid hands, in fact, and they are surprisingly responsive. Two robots play on a giant chess board in the garden as I watch with a crowd of other robots. Some robots’ eyes light up when they’re talking. Their heads tilt and nod. We’re in a Japanese Zen garden, but we could be anywhere. There’s an underground comedy show. There’s a crowded taco party in a luxurious living room. Rooms inside rooms inside rooms. Pick a world.
“The whole immersive experience makes you sweat,” a friend warned me when I first heard about AltSpaceVR, a virtual reality social network through which thousands of people across oceans use VR apparatus to experience a simulated world from their respective living rooms. It would seem odd to me if we weren’t currently all in lockdown. In 2020, a pandemic swept over the world like a tsunami. It’s as if time actually stopped, but it was just us. The human species has been forced to sit in our individual living rooms and consider: How did I end up here?
In 1929, Tom Blake bought a Graflex camera from his friend Duke Kahanamoku. He built a varnished, pine-wood box—two square feet—with a lever connected to the camera, then paddled it out at Waikiki to photograph surfing. The first-ever water housing.
In 1966, George Greenough sealed his high-speed Milliken 16mm camera into a plexiglass water housing and kneeboarded the 28-lb contraption into the barrel. Two years later, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun established barrel POV footage as the holy grail of surfing visions.
After the turn of the century, professional surfers like Brian Conley and Timmy Turner wore backpack-powered lipstick helmet cams. In 2005, water photographer Scott Aichner fused two fisheye water housings together to photograph a previously impossible 270-degree view, looking both in and out of the barrel.
Today, a single frame can capture every direction, all at once, from a camera that fits in the palm of your hand. From the comfort of my quarantine-mandated couch, I ride double barrels with Anthony Walsh and Shane Dorian in West Oz, slingshot into a four-story-tall tube at Nazaré with Kai Lenny, and hang out at Slater’s Surf Ranch. You can lounge with lions in Africa, wingsuit through caves in Japan, and meditate in a monastery. From the sublime to the absurd, worlds inside worlds.
In nature, there is no time, only seasons. And inevitably, our species is on the dawn of a new one. From stone tools to smartphones, from building fire to landing on the moon, humans and our technology have been on an inevitable path of convergence. Virtual reality may be the first step into that destined intersection. I recall my old mustachioed friend speaking of a singularity-like moment for VR.
“People don’t know yet what’s going to happen,” prophesied the jolly Englishman while drifting atop the Fijian sea almost a decade ago. “Cameras will become nodal creatures, capturing from a multiplicity of devices that form a network that creates whatever you want. People will forget the notion of a single-camera device, because it simply won’t exist. The camera, my dear friend, will become an algorithm.”
To a staggering degree, we’ve managed to capture and encapsulate our human experience, but it took a pandemic for me to see what we can do with it. Now imagine multitudes of these spherical cameras all connected, and this experience uploaded in a collective VR space that’s social and interactive. A “choose your own adventure” virtual reality that makes you sweat. Matrix shit. There may come a time when humans have nowhere left to interact but in these virtual worlds.
“Forty years ago, we had Pong: two rectangles and a dot,” explains tech visionary Elon Musk. “That is what games were. Now, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. And soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality. It would seem to follow that the odds we’re in base reality is one in billions. Arguably, we should hope that’s true. Because otherwise if civilization stops advancing, then it may be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization. Either we are going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.”
If our minds can surf in an immaculate virtual recreation…will we mind?