What Oculus Rift and games could do for movies in VR

I recently watched a few scenes from 'Zero Point,' a 360-degree film for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Here's what I thought:

Above: Mirror's Edge

Movies and video games complement one another, except when they bust out the classic insults: one's 'videogamey' and the other is so 'cinematic.'

'Just like a video game' has long been the pejorative comparison from the movie critic, shifting in his seat when nothing in the computer-generated scene is real, not even the point. Video games are shorthand for too big, too loud and too stupid.

Before you savage this critic and HOW DARE HE and so forth, we game critics are just as guilty of citing films among a game's successes and failures. Oh, this game is exquisitely cinematic – a groveling platitude that seems to put games one rung down as the medium that wishes it were a movie. And this game over here? Too movie-like, and a bad flick that doesn't even have the decency to let you jump around in it like an idiot.

The conversation becomes more interesting when you introduce an exciting technology like Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that's rocketed into visibility with every new user-turned-believer. Though a consumer model is on the way, most of the buzz has come from the increasingly-refined developer kits and the software created by talented individuals and companies who envision the Oculus Rift as the next step in 3D exploration, combat, disembodiment and unforeseen vomiting. Some people get sick from it, unfortunately.

The Oculus Rift's mechanisms for transporting its user into another space make it perfectly suited for video games, which are already practiced at crafting atmospheric and absorbing three-dimensional environments. And so it dawns on you just as you don it: Your field of view is dominated by a 3D-capable screen. When you look up, you'll see the stars above your spaceship's cockpit; there's a forest all around you; and the monster just might be standing behind you if you look over your shoulder. It makes sense for games to be here.

A new startup called Condition One thinks movies have a shot, too. The film and tech company, funded by several angel investors, intends to envelop you in 3D movies made specifically for the Oculus Rift. A special camera concoction, with lenses arranged in a circle and perched atop a stick, is used to capture scenes that will wrap around you in 360 degrees.

View the interactive trailer for Zero Point here.

Since Condition One's trajectory is so tied to the longterm plan of Oculus Rift in becoming a consumer product, a lot of what you're about to read (please?) is covered in caveats and my own speculation. These are my impressions of a multi-scene demo of Condition One and bits of its first film, Zero Point, with a few pitfalls:

- I was using the 720p Oculus Rift development model, so the film was displayed in a lower, less attractive resolution than it might be on the superior 'Crystal Cove' model of the headset.

- I noticed sporadic vertical seams in the film, which encircles you like a tall fence.

– If you look up or down there are black holes – gaps in which the camera is blind. I was told that while the prototype rig had already been made lighter and smaller, it hadn't yet become the dangling, omni-directional ball needed to shoot a sphere's worth of movie. (Do keep an eye out for suspicious disco balls five years from now. You may be under surveillance.)

– The longterm business model for these movies isn't really in place yet. They'll be sold online, the file sizes may be massive, there's no production pipeline in place. Also, "they" is a large assumption.

Danfung Dennis is the director of Zero Point, the first film for Condition One. His disposition toward virtual reality, he says, lies more on the zen side of things, and he'd rather have you wear the Rift for a sojourn somewhere beautiful and serene. Zero Point will be a clip collection, essentially, of different environments and the illusion of being in them. So ... we're going to the beach, then?

I'm surrounded by soldiers in a training exercise, and I hear gun shots in my headphones. The sound is what gets me first - I hear commands behind me, and I instinctively look around to the two men talking, one of them crouched in gravel. The dirty buildings around me appear dusty and echo with emptiness, and the muted brown colors suggest it might be a village somewhere in Afghanistan - or the mock one built in the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California.

The geographic location is of less immediate relevance than my own position in this scene - where do I look? This is not a scripted, fictional scene (though it's arguably on a set), so how it's framed is based on where I'm looking. I don't entirely feel like I'm there, because everyone looks through me like I'm a ghost on the battlefield.

Dennis has experience with the tense texture in this scene, having been nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 for his documentary feature, Hell and Back Again. He was an embedded photojournalist in Afghanistan for his film, and now I can almost see through his eyes. Despite the incompleteness of the illusion, I feel just a little more grounded in this place. It doesn't behave like a game, but the filmed nature gives you an immediate sense of realism.

I notice that there are transitions between scenes, as the camera moves closer to a nearby wall. There's a slow, gentle fade between spots, not a traditional cut. Dennis says traditional filmmaking techniques don't often work, and he found direct cuts too jarring, as if you were being teleported. And if you think the camera should just move to where it wants to be, you'll be tripped up by the other question facing films like this: Is that you moving? Are you a character now?

Whereas Dennis has intimate familiarity with the first scene, I am well accustomed to where he takes me next: HELL, also known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo show floor. Every year the Los Angeles Convention Center is visited by a sweaty, amorphous blob of referential t-shirts, Candy Crush lanyards and wheeled travel bags, which then splits into a thousand people whenever it's exposed to the sun. I love it, but I've never been quite so tall there.

Reliving E3 vicariously, as a tall camera on a stick, is a weird thing. As I move through the expo hall, which often resembles a dark arcade grown out of control, I feel like I want to shrug my shoulders in case I bump into someone. Not having to worry about where you walk frees you up to look at people's shoes, their profiles as they pass, and what they're doing even as they shrink behind you. Auto-walking is the voyeur's dream.

As odd as it is to have this remixed memory of somewhere I've been, I find it even more surreal when passersby point at the camera or look at it in one of its numerous horrible eyes. You feel seen, and you react to this person's body language, even though they've long ceased to exist in that moment. That moment has expired.

The wish-you-were-here promise of Condition One and its pairing with Zero Point certainly makes for an appealing suitor for the travel and nature program. Danfung Dennis is approaching it with realism in mind, but like IMAX it may eventually grow popular enough to lightly touch on more manufactured forms of entertainment. Even if Condition One fails to produce a single product, I find so much fun in unpacking the traditional film in this venue.

For a film to excel with the Oculus Rift, so much of what we expect from presentation must be repositioned and re-evaluated. How does the director draw attention to specific scenes if the viewer is facing the wrong way? Will the cinematographer scrutinize every possible angle, driven mad by his drive for perfection and hatred of free spirits? If the camera brings an actor's emotions closer, will you get all up in their face?

You were probably with me until you saw this ridiculous promotional image.

If any of these sound familiar, it's because narrative-driven games have dealt with similar problems in various incarnations. Players are able to move and look freely in the environment, so game developers must often snap their fingers, as it were, and use visual and aural guides to highlight important objects or events. You can't literally get lost in a movie, but Oculus Rift films might draw from the visual direction of games like Mirror's Edge, which used streaks of red to guide your eyes. Of course, games also have the benefit of being able to lock you into a non-interactive sequence.

Just like games, movies for Oculus Rift may also struggle with what and what not to show. A longstanding criticism of video games has been hinged on their violence, which is exacerbated by their lack of authorial editing. When you kill someone, there's usually no cut-away to soften the blow or to imply horror – it's all there in front of you. I've even been tortured in games from a first-person perspective with little mental anguish, but could I say the same if it was as realistic as a filmmaker could depict? Games get a bad rap for overindulgence, we've all heard it. Hollywood wouldn't necessarily do much better, nor does it have the years of expertise to deliver a good movie in 360 degrees.

Many of these possibilities will be limited by Condition One's shooting technology (the camera tech is not currently wearable, so no thrilling parkour movies yet), and even more will be constrained by the company's success, the Oculus Rift's widespread adoption and whether more talent is drawn in to create films like Zero Point. I like writing about potential, though, and doubly so when there's a chance someone might finally win that elusive Oscar for Most Video Gamey Picture of the Year.

[Images: Condition One, Oculus, EA]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.