Entertainment

Movies enter the future with virtual reality

Comfy seating. Hot popcorn. And a stereoscopic virtual-reality headset for your viewing pleasure. It’s a new cinematic experience envisioned by Hollywood and electronics manufacturers keen to tap into the hot VR market.

In recent years, Microsoft, Sony, Facebook, Google and Samsung have assumed a “gold-rush mentality” for VR, tech analyst Kevin Restivo said.

“As the core technology becomes refined for the masses, they’re looking for wider applications,” he said. “The movies are an obvious one.”

Whereas the usual movie-watching experience is a one-directional affair, VR lets you step inside a scene, giving you the feeling you can move around in a film’s environment. If you see an image on screen, or if a character is to your left, you can turn your head instead to the right and explore your surroundings with a 360-degree view.

The technology definitely caught the interest of attendees at this year’s Sundance film festival.

A section dedicated to VR filmmaking was a main attraction at the fest. Users donned 3D wraparound goggles to experience an original scene from Wild between Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Last month, premium cable network HBO and Lionsgate, the studio behind the $1.5-billion Hunger Games franchise, announced content creation deals for HTC’s much-hyped Vive system.

Beyond gaming, it’s “the next logical step” for the Vive, said Jeff Gattis, an HTC spokesman.

“We can take content and brands that are known, and just open up new windows of entertainment,” he said. “Whether that’s going to be full features or clips, at a minimum, it’s the creation of immersive virtual reality experiences.”

That immersion aspect is what most excites Tre Azam.His U.K. company manufactures MyndPlay, a brainwave-sensing headband which, when used with VR displays such as the Oculus, allows a viewer to “change the storyline” of a video based on emotional responses.

“We’ve got a MyndGuardian video that puts you into an attack scenario where you’re being mugged,” Azam said. “You can train your mind into going into fight or flight mode. Maybe you want to defend yourself instead of panicking.”

Developers, he said, have built some videos with 32 possible interactions.

“Imagine you’ve got a 90-minute movie where every scene could have a different possibility thrown in,” he said.

So far, studios have been mostly leveraging VR experiences to hype up their big productions.

In collaboration with Lionsgate, Samsung’s Gear VR device released a short on March 20 to promote the second film in its popular Divergent series.

Insurgent: Shatter Reality starred actors reprising their roles from the films.

HBO has experimented with short movie-making for VR headsets as well.

Attendees at last year’s South By Southwest lined up to demo a Game of Thrones experience using Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headset. Users joined the Night’s Watch and climbed a ladder to the top of the 700-foot ice wall.

As for when full-length VR feature films might ever take off as main cinematic attractions? That’s hard to tell, said independent filmmaker Elli Raynai, who is completing his VR short for the Oculus Rift.

“I don’t know if virtual reality is going to replace cinema,” Raynai said. “All I know is it has different rules, it presents a new way of telling stories, and that’s exciting for filmmakers.”

A closer look at virtual reality headsets

Oculus Rift/Facebook

(formerly Oculus Rift) Two development kits released. No consumer release date yet. DK2 costs $350.

Project Morpheus/Sony

Head-mounted display to be compatible with PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita gaming consoles. Anticipated early 2016 release.

Google Cardboard

Google Google’s DIY device folds out from a piece of cardboard to turn a smartphone into a VR headset. Users can download the app and either purchase a toolkit online, or build one themselves by following free online tutorials.The Vive/HTC Marketed as a “premium” virtual reality experience, and powered by SteamVR. Anticipated release in the spring.

Samsung Gear VR/Samsung

This is the first headmounted display to hit the market, and costs $199 US. The headmount was specifically designed to work with a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone.

Virtual Boy/Nintendo

Released in 1995, then quickly discontinued the following year after poor sales and reports that some players were experiencing headaches from overuse. Originally retailed for around $180 US.

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