You like popcorn with your movies? Well, too bad. In the future when we're all watching full-length film in virtual reality, there will be no time for snacks. You'll be too busy being right in the center of the action.
Imagine a battle scene in your favorite superhero blockbuster. The villain is right in front of you, caught up in some dastardly deed, the red of his maniacal eyes boring holes in your own just a few feet away. Behind you, buildings rumble and shake. The brooding sky darkens above, crackling with energy. Beneath your feet, the pavement begins to fracture and split.
The cinematic action will feel so close with a pair of VR goggles strapped around your head, and so much more real.
"[Virtual reality] is going to be the biggest change in filmmaking in our lifetimes," Oculus' head of video, Eugene Wei, said to a room of journalists in San Francisco last week. "It's on par with sound or color in film."
That's a big statement, but one that Oculus' Wei accepts as an inevitability. Today, the virtual reality hardware company (which is owned by Facebook) is working directly with Hulu and Discovery to bring shorts videos to Oculus-driven headsets, like the Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift.
For now, they're starting with videos shorter than 10 minutes, because VR video is costly and time-consuming to make, and because virtual reality in its current state can make some people feel nauseous or visually uncomfortable after a long time, especially if there's a lot of fast movement. But in the not-too-distant future, improving technology and greater investment in VR will pave the way for making full-length movies that are exciting and physically comfortable to watch.
For example, it will take under five minutes to join the crew of Discovery's The Deadliest Catch VR, which launches May 17, and about 10 minutes for the just-released 6x9, a slow-paced exploration into what it's like to live incarcerated in solitary confinement. In June, Oculus launches Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, which chronicles the journey of one man as he loses his vision.
I got a chance to demo the latter two at the event; they're topics that demand your time as they unfold.
VR changes the movie story
VR offers an enthralling type of storytelling precisely because of the way that scenes flood your field of vision, and new information reveals itself as you look around.
If you've ever tried VR, then you might be right there with me in regarding it as a transformative experience that you have to experience to "get". Riding a roller coaster in VR was still convincing enough for me (not a fan) to avert my eyes when I was whooshed "upside down". A documentary of the Syrian civil war brought my colleague Scott Stein to tears. Because it is a medium that fully immerses you in a world you can only escape when you remove your goggles, there are ways to tell stories in a deeper, more meaningful way in VR.
You are the person sitting inside a blank jail cell, craning your neck behind you to see the crumbling, glancing up at the ceiling to count the bricks. You are the one whose vision flickers and blurs, and eventually extinguishes. With VR, you don't simply watch and hear; you begin to put yourself into another's shoes. You place yourself in someone else's perspective.
"Directors of Academy films understand the promise of [VR] technology," Wei said of the impactful storytelling medium that makes people not just see and hear, but also feel. "Movie studios and TV networks are picking up VR film-making," he added. "DJs want to bring the party to people's homes."
(If you don't give a crap about VR, here's why you really should.)
Big user numbers mean bigger studio interest
Oculus won't be alone in courting Hollywood movie studios as interest in VR and continues to grow. Expect Microsoft (Hololens) and HTC (Vive) to jump into the fray once there's enough critical mass from users and studios to support costly, labor-intensive VR movie features.
It's starting to get there, for Oculus anyway. The Irvine-based company reported that Samsung Gear VR owners have watched nearly 3 million hours of VR video. In addition, over 1 million people used the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR in April, an accomplishment that the company's head of mobile, Max Cohen, called "a magic number for a lot of people to start taking this seriously."
And by "seriously," he means investing money into projects, starting with film shorts like the "Darkness" documentary and expanding into longer and more involved movies. For now, it's too early to trade in those ill-fitting 3D movie theater glasses for a pair of VR goggles, but from what I've seen of VR content so far, I'm inclined to agree with Oculus: it does have the power to change filmmaking in our lifetimes. The games that VR is known for? They're just the beginning.