The bulky goggles that accompany the virtual reality experience are a mixed blessing. On one hand, using them can attract derision. On the other hand, at least you can’t see those deriding you.
The ridicule potential factor grows when playing games with various VR controllers. Indeed, one of the biggest announcements last year from Oculus, which kickstarted the modern revival of virtual reality, was that the company would be developing controllers that allowed one to navigate a virtual reality space. Other headsets, such as the Vive from HTC and PlayStation VR from Sony, have been developed with their companion controllers in mind from the start. When interacting with such products, one is not just looking around a spherical world view from a stationary position, but seeking to interact with it, perhaps flailing one’s arms or even ambulating inside an omnidirectional treadmill.
In contrast, movies provide a less conspicuous virtual reality experience. And with many companies likely saving their big VR gaming news for more games-specific industry conferences such as the E3 show in June, attention has recently turned to the idea of more passive VR entertainment.
At CES, the giant annual Las Vegas technology trade show, Fox showed a brief but compelling storytelling demo in 2014 tied to its movie Wild. In the demo, you are sitting in the middle of an open space and guided to listen to character who appears suddenly behind you.
And at this year’s CES, alongside a number of more affordable cameras for generating 360-degree video, Dolby showed off VR video experiences. These included what it would be like to share the stage with Paul McCartney be helplessly trapped by a psychopath. An adult video company was also at the show demonstrating how it plans to continue being an early technology adopter with VR (with more details at the sexually explicit http://vrporn.naughtyamerica.com/).
One need not attend a major technology trade show to sample these kinds of experiences, though. Google recently announced that it has sold over five million of its inexpensive smartphone-based VR viewer — Cardboard -and that its companion app (Android, iOS) has been downloaded over 25 million times. In November, Google-owned YouTube rolled out VR videos that one can manipulate inside a browser. And after the company sold the Motorola smartphone business to Lenovo, it held on to the charming animated immersive vignette player Spotlight Stories, which has also been rolled out to iOS.
Still, virtually all of these immersive video experiences have one thing in common: they are relatively short. That hews to much of the user-generated video online. Still, while virtual reality games run the risk of losing their appeal as a novelty, that risk seems even greater with long-form movies that have historically been a lean-back experience, not a look-around experience.
The added viewpoint flexibility could help drive replay value of a film, but that was also true of multiple camera angles on Blu-ray discs, an underutilized feature. One compromise could expand the field of view to the point where viewers might gain a more natural perspective by looking left, right, up or down, but not requiring them to whirl around in their chair.