By Adam Guy
On the 28th of December 1895, at a place called the Grand Café in Paris, two brothers sold tickets to a screening of a selection of short simple films that included a scene of local factory workers leaving at the end of a shift. The Cinématographe motion picture camera the Lumière brothers used was their own invention, and when manually powered by a hand crank it was able to display a fast moving single chain of static photographs that created the illusion of a moving image. It then projected that image onto whatever flat surface it was pointed at. Those two brothers weren’t the first to experiment with the idea of moving images, but that night they were the first ever to hold a commercial movie screening.
Now, with over a hundred and twenty years of refinement, the black and white celluloid film has been replaced by vivid and highly detailed digital images. The screen is much bigger and brighter. But the underlying principle remains essentially the same; we’re still watching a series of fast moving photographs as they’re projected onto a flat surface.
“What VR means for traditional cinema though is a lot harder to predict”
In late march of this year the Facebook owned Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset will be released to the public. Although VR head mounted displays have existed in various forms since the 90’s, the technology has, for the most part, not been able to give us anything other than nausea inducing high latency blurred approximations of what science fiction films have been promising for decades. Oculus Rift is significant because it marks the first consumer targeted VR headset that actually lives up to the hype. Obviously, the primary aim of VR headsets like Oculus Rift is as a replacement to the computer monitor. It is designed for gamers by gamers; rather than viewing a virtual environment through a TV shaped window, VR is able to place you right in the middle of it all. When done right the level of immersion goes far beyond what was previously possible. It’s not going to happen overnight, but eventually VR will totally change the world of gaming.
What VR means for traditional cinema though is a lot harder to predict. Going to the cinema has always been a collective, passive experience. Every camera angle and every focus point is meticulously pre-planned. You are viewing someone else’s directorial vision whether you like it or not. So if you took the traditional film format and instead filmed it in a way that allowed the viewer to put on a VR headset and look around freely from inside that world, like some disembodied floating Eye of Sauron, the experience would be very different. Set design would need to take into account that every detail can be looked at, every fourth wall would need to be filled in. Plus the potential problems it might cause for a director are endless. Visual cues or forced perspective might be needed to make sure everyone sees the important but subtle exposition happening on one side of the room instead of admiring the wallpaper, or staring at a pair of famous breasts. VR cinema wouldn’t mean small changes, it would mean a total rethink of how films are presented and how they’re watched.
“You can look around as if you were strapped into the seat yourself but have no control over the experience, just like on a real ride”
There are already a handful of filmed VR experiences available. These real world movies are filmed with a 360° camera and allow the viewer to look around freely from wherever the camera was placed. But most films like this are currently little more than tech demos, hints at what might come next. There are also on-rails computer generated VR films. So, instead of using a real world camera, you’re viewing a virtual world from a predetermined position. A good example would be a roller-coaster ride. You can look around as if you were strapped into the seat yourself but have no control over the experience, just like on a real ride. As computer graphics continue to improve it’s possible that the two different techniques could become indistinguishable. With the benefit of significantly heightened immersion VR films using either of these techniques would be a good fit for genres that rely more on creating a reaction through emotional response (like horror) rather than those which focus on complex narratives (oh, and obviously porn. VR is going to own porn). But one of the key parts of what makes going to the cinema so universally popular is the social aspect. Strapping a VR headset on and blocking out the rest of the world is an inherently solitary experience. So taking a hot date to a VR cinema would probably not be the best idea when you might not even be able to tell if they’ve walked out on you. There will also always be certain genres that suit normal cinema better than VR; comedies are always funnier when your friends are there to share the laughs. On top of this, there really wouldn’t be any benefit in going to a specific place to view a VR film when you would likely have the means to recreate the exact same experience at home.
Samsung and Google both already have simple add-ons to transform their top end smart phones into functioning VR headsets. They’re not as refined as the purpose built Oculus Rift. But they do work, and they show that widespread affordable access to home VR isn’t that far away. So even if VR can’t do everything as well as traditional cinema, if you happen to be the owner of a large chain of multiplexes it might be worth keeping an eye on the Oculus Rift sales charts
Realistically, VR and mainstream cinema probably won’t cross paths any time soon. The Oculus Rift is focused on gaming for a reason, and there’s still as much interest in normal movies as there has ever been. You only need to look at the record breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens to know that the big studios are still making big money. And as long as that’s still true we’re unlikely to see any significant changes to what we watch and how we watch it. But the question of how VR is likely to influence cinema is an interesting one, especially when there’s so much potential. It’s safe to say that the cinema isn’t doomed just yet, but then again, it’s not unthinkable that in another hundred and twenty years the only time we’ll be sat together in a dark room watching fast moving photographs being projected onto a flat surface is in a museum.