Legend has it that during the first manned balloon flight in 1783, someone remarked, "What good is it?" Benjamin Franklin, standing nearby, offered the famous riposte: "What good is a newborn baby?"
Newborns are about unrealized potential; so are new technologies. Franklin understood that aviation would change the world, though it took the arrival of airplanes to realize some of his predictions. Today it seems to be virtual reality's turn to take flight, perhaps to become as impactful as cinema and television. But the pioneers trying to tell stories in VR are grappling with the same question that confronted Ben Franklin that distant Wednesday in Paris: "What good is it?" Or, more precisely: "How do we use it?"
VR is proving to be as confounding as it is promising, presenting challenges unlike those of any other medium. Yet its opportunities make it all worthwhile to Hollywood, where some are just beginning to grapple with how -- or maybe whether -- to utilize the technology for entertainment. Directors from Alfonso Cuaron to James Cameron are exploring its possibilities; moguls Rupert Murdoch and Jeffrey Katzenberg were given demonstrations. Legendary Entertainment CEO Thomas Tull went so far as to take a small stake in Oculus VR, the current leader in the sector.
"It's a new form of entertainment. I think that's very exciting," says Jon Landau, Cameron's longtime producing partner. "I use the term 'discovery.' It's a medium where the participant is going on a path of discovery that is of their own choosing."
Virtual reality is a three-dimensional artificial environment that the user enters, as if stepping into another room -- or another universe. These artificial worlds are usually (but not always) created with computer graphics, and experienced through some combination of earphones, goggles and handheld game-controllers.
VR isn't new; it's been around for more than 20 years, maturing in military training, flight simulators and high-tech film production, mostly out of public view. But thanks to faster, smaller electronics, VR is now poised to break out as a mass entertainment medium.
Facebook believes in VR enough to be spending $2 billion to acquire Oculus, in a deal first announced in March. Sony is developing a rival system, Project Morpheus. Other companies are also jumping in. Thousands of developers and creatives are working on VR content, from small startups to major studios.
And according to a source within 20th Century Fox, the company is exploring VR marketing and supplemental content for its "Night at the Museum" and "Maze Runner" franchises and the Fox Searchlight Reese Witherspoon-starrer "Wild." The company that will create the content hasn't been chosen.
VR is clearly a fit for Fox's futuristic or fantasy franchises, including "X-Men," "Fantastic Four" and "Avatar." But "Wild" is a surer indicator of Fox's interest in the platform. The movie is a character-driven picture largely set outdoors; it shows that VR isn't just for high-tech adventures.
(Illustration by Grzegorz Domaradzki for Variety)
There have been attempts to commercialize VR before, notably the "Dactyl Nightmare" arcade game and the Nintendo Virtual Boy some 20 years ago. Neither caught on, but today's VR tech is vastly better. Checking into a world enabled by Oculus Rift's goggles (still being perfected) is the nearest thing to teleportation any of us is likely to experience. In moments, you're on a gentle boat trip through lush wetlands. Look up and see the sky. Turn around, and the reeds recede behind you. You can't dip your hands in the water -- yet -- but sight and sound will make you feel like you're far away.
"I think from a cinematic storytelling perspective, we may be right around -- or even before -- (the time) metaphorically, when the Lumiere brothers created 'Train Pulling Into La Ciotat Station'â" (in 1895), says Eugene Chung, director of film & media for Oculus.
Another analogy for the current state of VR is TV circa 1938, when early experimental stations were being set up. At that time, there were no sitcoms or episodic dramas, and live sports were primitive, but the medium's potential was clear.
Public interest in VR was proven by the $2.5 million success of Oculus' own 2012 Kickstarter campaign. By early May of this year, it had sold about 70,000 of its developer kits, and its Oculus VR Share site has hundreds of experiences -- like a budding YouTube for VR.
So far, since there is no commercial distribution for VR, most Rift experiences live either on the Oculus site or on developers' computers. Among the sample experiences making the rounds: a zombie-hunting videogame, courtside seats at a basketball game, a live boxing match, a CG trip to outer space.
Because VR was nurtured in gaming devices and simulators, videogames have seemed like the most natural fit for the medium. But many developers are already using it for live-action experiences and trying to find the best way to fit it to narrative storytelling. "The original motto of Oculus was, 'Step Into the Game,'â" Chung says. "We've since modified it to letting people 'Experience the impossible.'â"
In his message announcing the acquisition of Oculus, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg wrote, "The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you're actually present in another place with other people."
But creating "presence" is a new challenge for creatives. Even as basic a cinematic technique as moving the camera is tricky in VR, because it can induce "simulator sickness," or nausea that comes from being moved around under someone else's control within a simulated world. (That problem is familiar to filmmakers who work on Imax, probably the closest thing to virtual reality in cinema.)
Design is even more important in VR than in film. Viewers have the freedom to explore the details of the world around them, and the appearance of that universe becomes an even more potent storytelling tool. Designers will likely be stars in VR production, much as they are in vidgames.
Some pioneers are working to bring to VR such cinematographic techniques as depth of field and rack focus. But to do so, they have to force viewers into a spot where their field of view is limited, so what follows is akin to a cut scene in a videogame. Others feel that trying to make VR into movies is self-defeating.
"(VR) is a new and different experience. It's not a movie experience," Landau says. "One of the basic principles of cinematic narrative storytelling is that the director directs the audience's attention to what he wants them to focus on." Without that, he adds, VR isn't narrative storytelling -- not "cinema" at all.
For example, an "Avatar" VR, Landau notes, might let the viewer have a personalized experience wandering through Pandora, but it wouldn't be the story of Jake and Neytiri. That experience may end up being just as important and impactful as the films, he says, but it's a different experience.
"Virtual reality is about worlds, and larger stories that are not a specific thread of a singular story," Landau explains. "People talk about the second screen. It's the ultimate second screen."
But just going into a world isn't enough, either. Ikrima Elhassan, co-founder of Kite & Lightning, a startup developing content for the Oculus Rift, has found that some VR experiences look great, but don't draw the viewer in.
"Once the novelty wears off of being in an amazing, surreal world, you want things to interact with, so you feel that you are driving this experience, not just watching it," he says.
Elhassan says what works in VR is counterintuitive. "We'll look at something in 2D and think, 'This is kind of lame,' but then put on the Rift and think, 'Omigod, this is amazing!'â" On the other hand, he says, he got excited about the idea of being a superhero and flying at 100 miles per hour in VR -- until he put the goggles on. "Five seconds later, I was like, 'I want to throw up. I don't want this at all.'â"
So if VR isn't like narrative storytelling in movies, and it requires interactivity, wouldn't vidgames be an ideal use? After all, a game system already creates a three-dimensional world inside the computer; you simply view it through a screen, which acts like a window. Shouldn't it be natural to just step inside the game?
Sony's Project Morpheus, its own version of VR goggles, is designed to work with the PlayStation, and take the viewer inside videogames. But Rick Marks, director of PlayStation Magic Lab, observes that even today's top games have to evolve to work in VR.
"With a regular game, usually there's some kind of character, and it's the character interacting with the content," he says. "Even with first-person (games), you don't necessarily feel like it's actually you reaching into the world and doing something." Playing on a TV screen, that's not a bad thing, but virtual reality presents challenges unlike those of either movies or games.
"Locomotion is a big topic in VR," Marks says, "How do you move around a 3D world?" "Walking" with a joystick feels fine in a console game; in VR, it can induce simulator sickness. Marks' team is experimenting with letting players use "teleportation" -- which amounts to jumping from point to point.
On today's games, players move around a lot, so game designers build large but somewhat sparse worlds. In virtual reality, Marks says, "The content will probably be richer in one space, but you won't travel as much. Usually you'll be confined to small environment." Another challenge arises from a sense few people are even aware of: "Proprioception," the body's positional sense. Going into a VR world and being unable to see your own body and arms can quickly become disorienting. Even seeing the world around you from standing height while your body knows it's actually sitting down can become uncomfortable.
But with all these challenges, some solutions are emerging from live theater and theme parks.
Many VR pioneers are learning from stage directors, who have always had to guide the audience's attention using lighting, sound and staging, without being able to control point of view as a film director can.
Some are studying the handful of live theater productions that have allowed the audience to walk around and follow the characters they choose -- from "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding" to the more esoteric "Tamara" and "Sleep No More" to the opera "Invisible Cities."
Some VR creators are also studying theme park design. Hilary Lewis, an architectural historian who has done a deep study of the look and layout of
Disneyland, observes: "What (Disney)
did at the theme parks was take all the talents they had in developing film and apply that to creating a three-dimensional space you could walk around in. If that's not the beginning of virtual reality, I don't know what is."
VR faces yet another obstacle: Putting on goggles and headphones is isolating. Yet, that's the point: You shut out the real world for an artificial one. But entertainment is social, too. Today's VR can quickly become a strangely ghostly, lonely experience, like Scrooge revisiting the shadows of Christmas Past or the dead Emily Webb reliving her birthday in the final act of "Our Town." Developers are hard at work making the VR experience social, adding avatars for multiple users, and the like. That may turn out to be crucial if VR is ever to rival TV and movies.
But before VR can become a mass medium, it has to be available to the public. So far, neither Sony nor Oculus has announced a release date, though the
latter is expected to hit the market as early as the end of the year, for $350 per headset. As presently constructed, the goggles are bulky and heavy, and need better screens.
But even with those limitations, the impact of VR entertainment is obvious to anyone who goes "into the Rift," as aficionados like to put it.
"When it came to the psyche of society, we hadn't heard from (VR) in a credible way since the 1990s," says Oculus' Chung. "And I think this is the right time."
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