"What if you could be a ghost for 10 minutes," he said. "Or, even better," he added, thinking bigger, "Darth Vader?"

At Oculus' unassuming digs in an office complex on the outskirts of UC Irvine, those tracks are being laid by its about 100 employees. Though some of these ideas are still in process, one movie-themed Rift application that's relatively far along is VR Cinema. Through the networked headset, one can watch a movie in a virtual theater environment — complete with the cone of light from the projector and the seats behind you — in tandem with others.

"You can feel like you're in a theater with your friends and turn to them like they're next to you, but be as loud as you want and not disturb the guy in front of you, because he can't hear you," Luckey said, before acknowledging with a bit of a shrug that "the movie theater-owners won't be happy about it."

Luckey, who got his start both building headsets in his parents' garage in Long Beach and working at USC's virtual-reality lab, admits Oculus' relationship with the entertainment industry was a little shaky at first. But that has begun to change as the company has assembled a new team focused on Hollywood outreach.

Tech progressives such as Alfonso Cuarón have met with Oculus, and executives from the company have talked with Katzenberg about the animation possibilities. At Tribeca, Robert De Niro gave a terse "cool" — the highest praise — after demo-ing the Rift. A few weeks before, an image of Rupert Murdoch trying on a headset quickly went viral.

"I don't think it's Hollywood studios greenlighting [Rift] movies that will be the tip of the spear," said Tull, who since investing has sought to connect filmmakers and Oculus execs. "But any time there's an opportunity for commerce things will change quicker than you think."

Still, there are hurdles. Dreams of a mainstream VR go back decades and are largely unfulfilled. The Rift headset has yet to sell any units to consumers, and there's still not yet a body of evidence filmgoers will want to watch a 100-minute film with a headset on.

Perhaps equally fundamental are the filmmaking challenges.

"A lot of what we know works about cinema doesn't apply to VR," said Brendan Iribe, chief executive of Oculus, as he went through the possibilities and peril in the company's well-lighted offices, its walls lined with press clippings and some carefully selected art pieces. "A lot of movement doesn't work," he said, noting the dizzying effect it can have on the viewer. "And a car chase won't work," he added, because it tends to rely on traditional editing, which doesn't really exist in VR.

Or as "Strangers" co-director Lajeunesse said, "You can't go from outer space to grandmother's house in a split second in VR."

Film is also based on traditional notions of foreground and background, and part of VR's goal is to erase those distinctions. Cuarón could create a VR version of the single-take "Gravity" opening, but what would it mean as a viewer if you can turn away from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock to watch space debris floating behind you?

"We're going from directing the viewer to a small point to creating spherical entertainment," Romanek said. "That isn't just apples-and-oranges. It's a new fruit."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com