No, the movies won’t take on mainstream VR, but the experiences will
We live in a time when the Star Trek Holodeck is moving from science fiction to reality. Our experiences with the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have shown the tremendous progress made in the field of virtual reality.
With these devices there is a huge sense of “presence”, of actually being in the virtual world. With the Vive, we wanted to reach out and touch things with our hands, and we were left mesmerized under a snowfall.
Even with the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2, which is a much older prototype; newer versions offer several improvements, and the consumer version will probably be even more polished, the feeling of being there is real. You’ll feel dizzy after riding a virtual roller coaster, and some of the horror games made for the Rift will leave you screaming in terror. The feeling of presence means that you very quickly begin to really feel there.
(Also see: Five Essential Oculus Rift Gaming Experiences)
However, for most people, VR will currently be limited to Google Cardboard – you can buy the headset online for less than Rs. 500, and it only needs a smartphone to power the experience. It’s always an interesting experience, and can really help to understand the power of virtual reality. One of the easiest ways to show people what it’s capable of is through 360 degree videos. YouTube now has a channel for 360-degree videos, and if you’ve never experienced virtual reality before, it can really blow your mind.
There are some really cool videos on the channel, including this Samsung-created video for the Avengers, and our personal favorite, the VR teaser for the upcoming World of Warcraft movie.
For this reason, there is a growing belief that movies will help mainstream virtual reality. In July, Oculus VR launched a virtual reality movie, about an animated hedgehog called Henry, and it’s the second movie now from Oculus Story Studio, an in-house production company Oculus set up last year.
(Also see: Seven amazing apps for the Oculus Rift that aren’t games)
This belief is why we see devices like the Bublcam, a spherical camera that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter and has now started shipping; another similar camera is the Sphericam 2, a 4K 360 degree camera for making VR movies.
There’s a lot of support for these kinds of projects, and it reflects the current optimism that most tech enthusiasts (including us) feel towards virtual reality. But that doesn’t mean it’s warranted, or that widespread VR adoption will follow quickly. Much of the conversation around VR so far has been about games, and that makes a lot of sense, because in video games, your perspective is what the universe is built around. Games put you at the center of the universe and ask you to look around and interact with the world, and that’s very well suited to VR as an experience.
But that doesn’t really translate well to cinema as we understand the term. The Warcraft video we talked about earlier, for example, shows you flying over a city on top of a gryphon. It’s a great panoramic shot, and you can see other beasts streaking past you in the sky as your eye takes in the details of the city below you. But that alone isn’t a really useful way to tell a story.
(Also see: This Mumbai-based arcade creates fun VR experiences for everyone)
The Avengers video is very exciting because the action can and does surround you; there is a focal point but there are also lots of little details happening all around so there is something to see no matter what. But even as an action scene, it ends up feeling blurry and confusing; it’s overwhelming and when you focus on a small detail, you’re afraid to miss the main stage.
It is possible to enjoy the video and enjoy all the different perspectives because it is only a short clip, not even a scene; but having to rewatch a feature film multiple times to see everything important feels more like a chore than an experience worth waiting for.
But that’s not all – when watching a movie, most people only think about the plot, the dialogues and possibly the performance of the actors. But a well-crafted film tells you a lot more, thanks to the use of different types of shots and lighting, and by carefully controlling your point of view. A virtual reality experience changes the relationship between film and viewer and will require a complete reinvention of the language of cinema to effectively tell long stories. For example, in the first-person view of VR, even simple things like cutting between scenes start to be a challenge.
Think of it like this – in a play, it would be possible for the audience to walk between actors and examine each scene from their own perspective. But most plays still take place on a stage, with the audience watching from a distance. This allows us to see the whole story the director is trying to tell us; it allows him to choose what he wants to show and what he hides, in the service of the narration of a story.
This of course reduces the practical problems of letting everyone on stage while a performance is in progress. But VR lets you do just that – literally jump between a scene – without the practical hassle; as a result, it shakes up the language of cinema, which has been built for a very long time.
Can this be adapted to a medium where the public decides what is important and deserves their attention? It’s certainly not impossible, but for now VR remains more suited to experiences, to inserting people into scenarios that they could not experience on their own, rather than telling a story through the movie theater. Games are one way to do this – a perfectly safe virtual roller coaster or a spacewalk along the International Space Station are other ways virtual reality will be immediately appealing. But for now, don’t expect a VR movie to garner the same kind of attention as the next Avengers movie, which you’ll watch in a theater or on your TV.
Check out the latest from the Consumer Electronics Show on Gadgets 360, in our CES 2023 hub.