At the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival in Utah, one of the most popular attractions was Birdly, a two-minute long virtual reality flight simulator. The immersive experience, which was open to the public, had spectators life flat, face down, with arms outstretched and use an Oculus Rift head mounted display to experience what it would be like to fly over San Francisco. Queues of people waited over two hours for their Virtual Reality (VR) fix. Lost, another movie on show at Sundance also viewed via Oculus Rift, where viewers moved through the woods and encountered a giant robot, hand in search of its owner, had attendees raving.
Fittingly, this year’s Festival’s star attraction, Oculus Rift, made its debut three years ago at this same event. In 2012, Palmer Luckey, a student of the Annenberg School of Communication debuted his prototype at Sundance. Today, he has sold Oculus Rift for $2bn to Facebook.
While it would seem a no-brainer to use VR in gaming and that is already happening, the real challenge will be adapting it to the cinema medium, where the audience will have the option to look in any direction at any time, requiring a dynamic storyline.
The comparison with 3D is inevitable. But VR goes much beyond that. Rather than the images being lifelike and tangible, this is an experience that completely absorbs the viewer and makes them feel a part of the scene, whether it is in the sky, a forest, or whatever realm is being depicted. The advantages of this kind of experience are manifold. At the most basic level, everyone watching a movie will be treated to the same immersive experience, albeit from their own unique perspective. Rather than taking you through a basic linear narrative, the new VR experience will encourage viewers to look all round them and develop their own stories. This will drive filmmakers to find new ways to engage their audience and keep them coming back for more.
The potential for interactive immersion is also limitless. Imagine watching a cricket game. Rather than your standard experience of watching a game and post-game formalities, imagine having access to content such as ‘backstage’ interviews with players, where it would feel like you were standing next to them and listening. Now imagine actually being on the red carpet at your favourite awards show and seeing that bright red carpet beneath your feet.
However, one of the greatest benefits that content providers will reap is the vast potential that exists for monetisation. Brands will be able to target advertising based on where a viewer lives and his or her purchasing preferences. Audiences may even have the option to only view ads that interest them giving advertisers further insight into their psyche, thereby making the whole concept of an immersive experience mutual between user and provider.