How virtual reality will change the cinematic experience

Will VR be seen as a major milestone in film history? Dan Page explores how experiences in the cinema aisles might change for the better

Since the Lumière brothers shot and showed the first film in Paris in 1895, cinema has allowed us to be transported back in time, explore unknown planets and even find out what our toys get up to when no one’s around. In recent years, technological innovation has meant cinemagoers can become even more immersed in the stories they see on screen. One development in particular is virtual reality (VR) and now, for the first time, film-makers have at their disposal a range of revolutionary VR tools to help craft their movies.

Marketers, broadcasters, engineers, artists and architects are already on to VR. But the multibillion pound question being contemplated by movie executives is whether the VR revolution will catch the imagination of the public – or will a future where we strap boxes to our faces in the cinema aisles be too embarrassing?

Cinema is a spectacle. It’s a social experience you simply can’t get at home. It’s why we pay a premium for it. While home entertainment systems have improved considerably in recent years, the cinema industry has also upped its game. It’s now common for filmgoers to enjoy advanced digital 3D and 4K projections, complete with 7.1 surround sound.

But today’s digitally-savvy consumers want more – as do the film-makers. This is where VR comes into play. We’re already seeing huge changes to consumer technology as a result of affordable VR headsets such as Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR: Innovator Edition. While originally designed for the gaming community, they represent a quantum shift in technology that’s already changing expectations and experiences of going to the cinema. Attendees at last year’s 3D Film Festival in Los Angeles were effectively “surrounded” by the film, getting (and feeling) closer to the action and its narrative. On the other side of the equation, film-makers were able to more quickly make emotional connections with viewers – and their impact last longer.

But the big news is that Oculus (owned by Facebook) how now decided the time is right to get into VR film-making by launching the Oculus Story Studio. The announcement, made at this week’s Sundance Film Festival, will involve the release of its first movie, Lost – as well as providing VR advice and expertise to film-makers seeking to try the technology.

The news follows Fox Searchlight Pictures’ launch of a three-minute, 360-degree VR movie experience of 2014 film Wild. With the recent $28m (£18.5m) investment into VR films, games and TV tech startup Jaunt from the likes of BSkyB and Google Ventures, it’s clear something big is afoot.

Cinemas will inevitably need to respond. While the big Hollywood studios will still primarily decide what we get to watch, a handful of British tech companies are among those developing VR options. London-based Framestore, for example, is currently at work on The Age Of Starlight, an experiential show made exclusively for the Manchester International Festival in collaboration with scientist Brian Cox. While the technology is looking like it’s more augmented reality (AR) than VR, it’s a complimentary technology that could lead the way for stage-based performances. The show itself looks to be somewhere between a ballet, art installation and documentary.

It’s also worth noting that VR games and experiences in the horror category are proving immensely popular. Notable entries to the VR horror genre include 11:57 and Affected. The potential this has for the horror film genre is immense.

Whether we’ll see a return to the oft-ridiculed 4D effects (wind, rain, vibration and so on) is another question that’s likely to remain unanswered in the near future. Will consumers want wind and water blown in their faces on a typical trip to the cinema, or will these extras remain a novelty reserved for science centres and theme parks?

High-resolution headsets at affordable prices represent a real chance for cinemas to benefit from and monetise recent advancements before VR becomes a household product. Looking even further ahead, a VR premium experience complete with lifelike HD resolution, haptic (touch/feel) feedback, 4D effects and comfortable, swivelling chairs could be something forward-thinking cinemas invest in.

In all, we’re going to see some incredible, transformative technology incorporated into entertainment inside and outside the home. How long this will take to reach consumers on a large scale is the key question.

Five things to look out for in VR cinema
• DreamWorks Animation pushing its Super Cinema VR experiences, and a chance immerse yourself in the familiar landscapes of your favourite computer generated films as more studios follow suit
• The Oculus Story studio showing everyone else how it’s done
• Test installs in the lobby of your local cinema offering a taste of the VR experience
• Sensationalist horror stories from reactionary press on VR jump scares causing heart palpitations
• Semi-interactive experiences blurring the line between games and film

Dan Page is marketing manager at Opposable Games, which will be hosting its inaugural SouthWest VR Conference on 24 February in Bristol

Source: The Guardian

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