How Jaunt and Dolby scared the bejeesus out of me with a virtual reality 'Black Mass'

I strapped on a VR headset to find out how sound helps fool the brain, and I really wish I hadn't.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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"Black Mass": it's OK, I didn't want to sleep for a week anyway. Jaunt

BARCELONA -- Virtual reality allows you to step into another world -- or in the case of disturbing VR film "Black Mass", be kidnapped, drugged and initiated into a good old-fashioned thorough freaking out.

A company called Jaunt records films and events with a 360-degree camera and a tetrahedral, omni-directional microphone, creating a complete record of the environment that you can then explore while wearing a virtual reality headset, such as the DIY Google cardboard device. And now sound company Dolby has lent its ears to Jaunt to improve the audio experience.

Three virtual reality apps will be released with Dolby Atmos sound for Android devices in coming weeks; they are a clip from monster movie "Kaiju Fury", Sir Paul McCartney's 2014 concert from San Francisco's Candlestick Park, and a clip from horror movie short "Black Mass", directed by "Paranormal Activity 5" helmer Greg Plotkin. I strapped on a VR headset containing a Samsung Galaxy Note here at Mobile World Congress to check out the latter, and I really wish I hadn't.

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"Black Mass" opens in a dirty, dimly-lit garage. "I think they drugged us," says a girl, who promptly runs off and leaves me alone. I look around the grimy room, taking in the detail of the environment, then when I hear a noise I look back to see a sinister little girl telling me I'm bleeding. I instinctively look down. Then -- well, then it gets all kinds of terrifying, and I don't really want to talk about it any more, to be honest.

My heart pounding, I learned that the importance of sound to virtual reality is two-fold: firstfold, it helps with the crucial element of "presence"; and second-fold, it's an essential tool of storytelling in an environment where you're in charge of what you look at.

Presence is the name given to the point at which your brain "accepts" the illusion of virtual reality. Sound plays a role in that because our ears are so important when making spatial judgements: each ear hears things at an infinitesimally different time, and our brains interpret that tiny difference to pinpoint where the sound came from. When directional sound is added to the 3D visuals creating the illusion of depth in front of us, it's another cue fooling the brain into accepting the reality of the scenario.

And sound is crucial for storytelling because it helps the storyteller attract your attention. On a TV, you see only what the filmmaker wants you to see. But in a virtual reality environment, you can look wherever you want. That's great for exploring, but when it comes to telling a story you don't want to miss the important moments in the narrative.

In "Black Mass", that means hearing a voice or noise behind you that attracts your attention, whether to guide you to the next part of the story, or distract you from something awful materialising ready for when your gaze returns.

I'm not a huge fan of the genre -- my idea of a horrifying cinematic experience is accidentally walking into an Adam Sandler movie -- so my tolerance for this stuff is probably pretty low. But even as I was thinking "This isn't real" and "I can just take it off", I had a real physical reaction to the story, sweating and flinching as my brain told me it was really happening.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to find somewhere brightly-lit to sit down, think about kittens and probably never sleep again.

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