Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Virtual reality cinema

Virtual reality is one of those things that just never seemed to live up to the hype.

I remember paying to play a virtual reality game at Chicago's North Pier back in 1993. I put on the goggle-like headset and entered a world of boxy shapes and creatures composed of similar geometry. It was impressive for its immersive quality, but it wasn't very much fun. Near as I can tell, things haven't progressed all that much in the couple decades since. Undaunted, the film industry wants to bring virtual reality to the big screen.

The Chicago Tribune ran a story about this about a week ago. Saw it in my Sunday paper. I read it with interest, wondering how much furtherance there has been with virtual reality by now and...more practically...how the movie industry and physical theaters could hope to possibly incorporate it. Sure enough, that was one of the first questions out of the gate. How indeed. Turns out that VR companies like Occulus, makers of Rift, believe that VR-generated content would be too specialized to work in traditional theaters.

It seems the idea would be to place a "VR-enabled device" on your head that would receive images, thus immersing you in the world of the narrative. While there are those who have found such an experience disorienting, it has an interesting advantage. Sure, there are all of the vivid colors and deep imagery, but craning your head around in a 360 degree sweep will not show you those sitting in the theater next to you or behind you. In fact, the experience could be constructed so that you wouldn't even hear them. The movie experience would then be yours alone. No more jackasses in the audience. Nice. However, this brings new challenges.

If the entire world of the narrative is open to you, what keeps you in the "through-line" of the story? If you're in an apartment, what is to keep you from wandering off and exploring all of the rooms? Meanwhile, you really were supposed to see the sister of the protagonist hide the money she's been given for school away in a shoebox beneath her bed. This isn't necessarily a detraction. In fact, there are filmmakers who see this as an opportunity. Why not have multiple storylines branch off from the main narrative thread? The viewer could, conceivably, be free to wander off and explore movies within movies (how meta!) before circling around to the main point of the film. As one filmmaker was quoted in the article as saying, "With VR, it's almost more important than traditional filmmaking to always bring them home." Granted, how this will really work remains to be seen.

At the link, you can see a nifty short film called "Way to Go." It's a piece of virtual reality described as "Terrence Malick by way of Q*Bert." It's a bit video gamey and lacks the look and feel of real life cinema, but it gives you an idea of where things might be heading.

Come to think of it, how do we know our reality isn't virtual?

Yeah, I'm just going to sit back and wait for Pesenko to weigh in on this post.

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