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Mar 8, 2016

Movies Escape from (Virtual) Reality

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Going to the movies was my favorite way to escape a mundane suburban childhood. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film where I truly felt the peril of the movie’s hero with heart-racing adrenaline and a first-person perspective. Gripping the seat with both hands, I lived through the moments with Indiana Jones as he narrowly escaped a booby trapped cave, ran for his life through a primitive jungle and was dropped into a den of slithering snakes – barely avoiding certain death, time and time again. In that darkened movie theater, it was hard to imagine anything feeling any more real and thrilling, but the advent of Virtual Reality promises to raise the game, bringing consumers an even fuller, more immersive experience.

Advances in entertainment technology can be major game changers. Digital video projection, DTS audio and IMAX movie theatres have elevated our cinematic experience, and set new standards for enjoying movies. 3D became the new must-have cinema upgrade in the late 2000’s, and audiences eagerly donned the slightly awkward glasses for the eye-popping benefit of added depth of field. But somewhere along the way, 3D became a nice-to-have gimmick instead of a must-have viewing preference. Whether it was the visual disorientation or price-conscious audiences shying away from 3D’s higher ticket prices (up to $4 more), the market has definitely cooled towards 3D; this decline is a cautionary tale for would-be VR content creators.

Virtual Reality won’t be an easy plug-and-play for filmed entertainment. It’s not that viewers wouldn’t want to experience a character’s point of view, but an interactive camera would clearly undermine a director’s storytelling. I miss out on critical movie plot points as it is, much less if I could get repeatedly distracted by looking around the screen at things that catch my eye. Netflix recognized the importance of keeping the source material intact, and its VR app plays video content on a TV screen in a virtual living room. It’s a novel approach akin to watching a movie within a movie; however I’m not convinced the presentation does much to enhance the movie itself. Hulu takes a different tact, offering two dozen+ titles through Samsung’s VR headset that are mainly nature-filled panoramas. It does a great job of showing off beautiful scenery with a 360-degree lens, but Discovery Channel/National Geographic-type programs aren’t what most viewers want when they sit down to watch TV at night.

Unscripted content is likely the best fit for VR, and entertainment companies ranging from movie studios, to vanguards Amazon and Google, are scrambling to get into the game. There’s clearly a market for first-person, live streaming content (think Periscope, Facebook Live, YouTube Connect, et al), since living vicariously through others is practically a core human condition. VR is the perfect vehicle to take our innate curiosity to a much deeper level of intimacy. The rush of skydiving, the wonders of a coral reef, or the live energy of a rock concert mosh pit will all be immersive, explorable worlds accessible to anyone with a headset. Voyeuristic vs. story driven, VR has potential to be an entirely new type of entertainment, but as a supplement to traditional movies, rather than incorporated into them.


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