SAN DIEGO -- Virtual reality is back at Comic-Con, and this time it's taking you to a faraway fantasy planet called Azeroth.
The annual flagship comics convention that's expanded over the years to include film, television, video games and, now, virtual worlds kicked off here Wednesday with a special virtual reality experience for the "Warcraft" fantasy film, due out June 10, 2016. Although an early trailer for film was shown in secret at the annual BlizzConn convention last August -- it was never released online -- this is the first time the public can get a closer look at the world director Duncan Jones and crew have created.
The catch: The scene is viewable only through Google Cardboard, a headset made of -- you guessed it -- corrugated paper that cradles a user's smartphone, letting them peer through a pair of cheap lenses for no-frills VR experiences. Called "The Skies of Azeroth," the short interactive scene puts viewers on the back of a flying eagle as it traverses a detailed fantasy city called Stormwind.
Legendary Pictures, the film production company overseeing Warcraft for distributor Universal Pictures, developed the VR experience for Google's low-cost, do-it-yourself headset with help from esteemed effects company Industrial Light & Magic, which is the chief visual effects provider for the film. Legendary also released a special VR trailer for director Guillermo del Toro's upcoming horror film "Crimson Peak."
"I was obviously focused mainly on the film, but we discussed what kind of experience we could give the audience through VR," said Jones, speaking with reporters at the Legendary booth. "With this world building that we're doing in the movie, is there something we can do that can give you that sense of world building in VR?"
Virtual reality in some form or another is becoming a must-have at events around the world. Once reserved for niche video game trade shows, VR is now a focal point of the Sundance Film Festival and is commonplace at large-scale music meet-ups like Coachella, where retailers like H&M are using the tech to try and reach new customers. Even French fashion house Dior is dabbling in VR to give consumers a chance to see backstage at its shows. VR goggles, which users can strap on or hold against their eyes, are already on the market today, while some of the most advanced models -- like Facebook-owned Oculus VR's Rift headset -- are slated to arrive in early 2016.
Comic-Con, given its deep ties to the ever-expanding superhero world that's moved from the printed page to the film screen and beyond, is evolving into a showcase for cutting edge proof-of-concepts using technology like VR. The test this time around: Does the future of the movie trailer involve transporting viewers inside the film?
Legendary and Google plan to give away 50,000 copies of Google's Cardboard headset at the show that will work with a Legendary smartphone app, which was released Wednesday night and is designed to let anyone with one of the search giant's headsets view the "Warcraft" and "Crimson Peak" experiences. Comic-Con, now in its 45th year, has an attendance cap of 130,000 people, which it has hit repeatedly in recent years. That means there won't be enough headsets for everyone, and Google does not sell its Cardboard headset. However, other low-cost VR devices certified by Google can be purchased online. The clips can also be viewed within the app without a VR headset, the company said.
The VR slant at this year's Comic-Con is fitting for a film based on a fantasy role-playing series that's become known in the gaming industry for pushing technological boundaries. World of Warcraft, the series' standout title, is the highest-grossing game ever made thanks to a world players inhabit by logging online into customizable avatars and paying $15 a month to do so. Since its launch in 2004, developer Activision Blizzard has released five expansions to the game that have kept old players hooked and new players signing up, and subscribers totaled 7.1 million in March.
This isn't the first time VR and film have been blended at Comic-Con. Last year, Legendary worked with Del Toro to develop a three-minute VR experience that put wearers of the Oculus Rift headset into the helmet of a colossal manned robot. The demo was a promotion for Del Toro's monster-robot fighting film "Pacific Rim," which came out later that July, and it is also included in the new Legendary VR app.
Google, though not as committed to VR as competitors Facebook and Samsung, is establishing itself in the market for low-end devices. The search giant first unveiled its VR efforts last year, when it showed off Cardboard as a simple VR headset made from cheap off-the-shelf parts. The kit includes about $20 worth of trinkets like brass fasteners and rubber bands to keep the project inexpensive. The initiative has become a key effort at the company, which in May said it was working to bring the technology to classrooms.
For Legendary, cutting edge technologies are an inevitable element of filmmaking. The studio, which just turned 10 years old, was founded by Thomas Tull, whose background is in finance and who personally invested in Oculus VR and secretive Florida-based startup Magic Leap, which is creating a headset that promises to float realistic 3D images in front of wearers' eyes. Nowadays, Legendary is probably known best for producing Christopher Nolan films like the Batman trilogy, "Interstellar," and "Inception," as well as special effects landmarks like Zac Snyder's "300" and, more recently, "Jurassic World."
"Warcraft," given that it's part of an entertainment series that has existed only in computer-generated worlds, is a sensible choice for Legendary to continue trying to pioneer new ways to experience films as interactive scenes viewable only on screens pressed up against your eyes.
Update at 8:30 p.m. PT: Clarified that Legendary Pictures' VR experiences for "Warcraft" and "Crimson Peak" do not contain film footage, but rather interactive scenes specifically designed for Google's Cardboard VR headset.