Off with your head: Comic-Con stars virtual-reality thrills

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" gets a lot more real when you're Professor X searching for mutants on the Comic-Con floor. Hollywood's tapping Oculus Rift and virtual reality to make offerings more immersive.

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Complete with rumbling wheelchair, the X-Men experience turns you into Professor X. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

This year, the star of San Diego Comic-Con wasn't a new TV show or movie. It was virtual reality (or at least the future entertainment thrills it promises), brought to you by Oculus VR. And Hollywood.

Hollywood knows there's big business in being first. Even though some people might still have no idea what the Oculus Rift is, the willingness of movie studios to embrace immersive entertainment afforded by gear like it could mean by that by time the headset makes it way into households, such entertainment will be more polished and well-executed than we ever could have imagined.

"All raw technologies are just platforms until someone creates a structure for it," said James Milward, president of content creation company Secret Location, which developed a virtual-reality "Sleepy Hollow" experience.

And that's exactly what Hollywood wants to do -- shape the future of virtual reality both in the home and as a broader form of entertainment. With the introduction of new 360-degree cameras earlier in 2014, it's likely that these "experiences," as each Comic-Con booth was calling them, are the first steps toward that goal.

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Oculus Rift could change home entertainment for the best. Caitlin Petrakovitz/CNET

This past weekend at Comic-Con, studios used the Oculus Rift to put attendees smack in their movies and TV shows. The Oculus Rift lets wearers see in stereoscopic 3D -- basically working the same way your eyes do to present a highly immersive experience. In addition to "Sleepy Hollow", the most recent X-Men movie; "Pacific Rim"; and new disaster movie "Into the Storm" all showed off this near-future tech on the convention floor.

While booth attendants wouldn't speculate on the future of VR in Hollywood, it's likely we're seeing the beginnings of downloadable content from movie studios. Virtual-reality offerings could be pushed to consumers in an effort to market films before they're released, or attached to movie downloads as incentives.

Milward called Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" experience more narrative than others, citing the way dashing crime-solver Ichabod Crane draws you in and sets you on a path to getting your head chopped off.

In fact, the "Sleepy" experience was the only one to employ such a drastic change of perspective. As a chopped head, you can look up and see your murderer, the forest, and a very creepy cemetery -- all from your spot on the ground.

Less murderous but more immersive was the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" experience, in which you are Professor X heading into Cerebro in a rumbling wheelchair and searching for mutants on the Comic-Con exhibit floor. With an engaging storyline, 4D (tactile) effects, and a mission to complete, the X-Men narrative drew me in the most of all the VR experiences I tried.

For its "Into the Storm" experience (video below), Warner Bros. put viewers inside a tunnel and let them discover the set as events unfolded in a scene front of them. The visuals were fairly simple, dropping you into the middle of what looked like a scene from the movie, and allowing you to look around 360 degrees.

While the basic scene felt, ironically, one-dimensional -- static and simple -- what set this experience apart was the placement of large fans inside a see-through booth to create the feeling of a wind storm. And even though giant fans probably won't be making their way into your home (at least to enhance VR setups), the basic notion of experiencing a scene virtually seems to be the distant relative of what we could one day see attached to movie downloads, or as a way for studios to market individual, personalized film trailers.



Legendary's "Pacific Rim" created what felt like one such trailer. Its Drift with the Rift experience placed you inside of a Jaeger combat simulator. The experience had the same 360-degree view, but again felt like an uninvolving scene from "Pacific Rim 2" -- and sure enough, it ended with a call to join up again in 2017.

So what's next? As the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets become less a niche toy and more widely available to the public, we'll begin to see more entertainment developed for the platform. And as Hollywood begins to create more immersive content for VR platforms, we'll hopefully begin to see those experiences made available to the general public alongside the technology. Hold on to your heads.

 

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