'The Martian' test: Is VR for more than just gamers?

At $20, the virtual-reality piece based on Matt Damon's movie is an experiment on whether people will pay for VR content that isn't a game.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

Hollywood is placing its bets that virtual reality could be as popular as popcorn at the movies.

This week, Fox is wagering $20.

Tuesday, movie studio 20th Century Fox is releasing "The Martian VR Experience," a virtual-reality simulation that puts viewers inside the spacesuit of Mark Watney, Matt Damon's character in the 2015 movie. In the fledgling universe of VR, it's a ballyhooed production, from a big-budget studio, with plenty of name recognition thanks to a blockbuster flick.

But with a $20 price tag, it's the most expensive non-gaming VR release so far. That makes "The Martian VR Experience" raise two flags. It's the first field test of whether mainstream consumers will pay for virtual reality that isn't a game (or porn). "The Martian" also sends a message Hollywood hopes will become a premise: If we make VR worth seeing, it's also worth paying for.


Matt Damon played Mark Watney in 2015's "The Martian," the basis of a new virtual-reality experience from movie studio Fox.

20th Century Fox

Virtual reality is an entertainment format that uses responsive headsets to put viewers in the middle of the action. Big investments in hardware by tech giants like Facebook, Samsung, Sony and Google have made it one of the buzziest consumer technologies this year. But it has limited reach because much of the hardware is expensive and complicated. That feeds uncertainty about its ultimate impact.

The first wave of VR experiences have been mostly games. For one, VR is naturally suited to gaming, as both share a first-person, interactive storytelling style. But another big reason is that gamers are already known for paying hundreds of dollars in equipment and coughing up more dough for new releases.

"Right now, the majority of paid VR content ... is all paid upfront, and that content is almost completely covered by games," said Stephanie Llamas, director at SuperData Research, which studies the gaming and VR industries.

Filmmakers have to take a bigger leap of faith that people will pay for VR. While there is a smattering of documentary-style videos and other VR footage, they're often short clips given away as a demonstration of virtual reality.

In "The Martian VR Experience," users live through the perspective of Damon's character, flying onto the surface of Mars or steering at zero gravity through space. You even get to throw around poop-cultivated potatoes, which is pretty cool.

But the $20 cost of "The Martian VR Experience" more than doubles the average price of a US movie ticket, according to the National Organization of Theater Owners. That's for an experience that lasts 30 minutes, more or less. More if you spend a lot of time playing with poop potatoes.

Starting Tuesday, "The Martian VR Experience" will be available on Playstation VR and the HTC Vive, the two platforms with hand controllers available currently. Fox is expected to make it available for Facebook's Oculus Rift in December when its controllers, called Touch, are released.

Although "The Martian" is the first test of people's willingness to pay for non-game VR, it wouldn't be fair to divine the future success or failure of Hollywood VR from its initial traction. With availability only on so-called "tethered" VR sets that use a PC or a gaming console, it's potential audience is small. SuperData estimates that group at about 3.6 million people by the end of this year.

But SuperData also estimates that audience to grow to 20 million by the end of 2018 and more than 50 million by the end of 2020. "The Martian" may set the tone for how Hollywood approaches that future audience -- and what that audience will come to expect from Hollywood.

You can get a 360-degree peek at the experience below, with a voice over by the film's director Ridley Scott, who was also involved in making the VR experience.