Virtual reality was the belle of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Immersive exhibitions displayed on face-hugging headsets told powerful stories in lifelike worlds, in 360 degrees and with the viewer in control of the camera. Virtual reality brought Syria to an audience in Utah and made those same people fly like birds over San Francisco. Blogs and news programs lit up with stories about the future of storytelling, some including grand predictions about VR films going forward. But, now, the buzz is fading and a question remains: Do filmmakers in Hollywood think that virtual reality is the future of cinema?
"No. I don't think so."
That's Michael Doven, longtime production associate to Tom Cruise and an associate producer on Vanilla Sky, Mission Impossible 2, Minority Report and The Last Samurai. Doven is entrenched in Hollywood, his ear to the ground on the latest technologies and trends. He sees virtual reality, specifically the kind of full-headset experiences shown off at Sundance, as cutting-edge projects that aren't yet suited to a mass movie market.
"I think it's still considered kind of an experimental, an untried, an unproven," he says. "Nobody out there is predicting that's the future, that everyone's going to want these things. 'We're going to crack the code and our company is going to do it.' I don't hear anybody talking like that."
And Doven isn't the only film buff who feels this way.
'Birdly' at Sundance
Virtual reality is in a high-profile form of infancy. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, the company behind the Oculus Rift VR headset, for $2 billion and with the promise to create "completely new kinds of experiences." This brought virtual reality to mainstream attention, though the revolution was already alive in the video game industry.
Billed as a gaming device, Oculus Rift enjoyed a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, and its popularity helped usher in a new era of gaming-focused VR headsets. In March 2014, Sony -- the maker of the PlayStation 4 -- revealed its own hardware, Project Morpheus. Microsoft, the company responsible for the Xbox One, upped the ante in January 2015 with its announcement of HoloLens, an augmented reality headset designed to overlay virtual worlds on our physical spaces. Valve, the company behind Steam and major gaming franchises Portal, Half-Life and Left 4 Dead, this month announced its own foray into VR hardware with the Vive headset, a truly mind-blowing collaboration with HTC.
Virtual reality was huge at this year's Game Developers Conference, and it has been present at the biggest gaming conventions since the Oculus Rift's duct-tape debut in 2012, which puts some of the Sundance hullaballoo in perspective. Plus, this "gaming first" trend makes sense -- traditionally, the video game industry is more adaptable to new technologies.
Valve and HTC's Vive headset
"I think gamers will be more comfortable initially -- they are already looking for the most immersive interactive experience," says John LePore, creative director at Perception NYC, the company responsible for the futuristic gadgets and graphics in Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers.
Peter Sciretta, founder and editor-in-chief of SlashFilm, largely agrees: "The core VR experience works best in the interactive world of games. Right now there isn't the technology to capture live action in a fully immersive, 360-degree, 3D in the way you can inside a computer-generated world."
Sciretta attended Sundance and had fun at the New Frontier center, where virtual reality was on full display, but nothing there convinced him that this was the future of filmmaking. In fact, he grew quickly bored with every virtual reality experience he tried. One demo that stood out to Sciretta was Kaiju Fury, a classic monster-destroys-city film shot specifically for virtual reality, in 360 degrees. He says the experience was cool, but in the end it was disenchanting. He only wanted to watch the monster anyway, and turning away from the action was like "watching the extras in the background in the corner of a movie frame," he says. Engadget's review of Kaiju Fury echoes Sciretta's experience and ultimately calls the film "underwhelming."
"I think right now VR is the new, cool thing," Sciretta says. "The first time you put on that headset, it's a rush for sure, but I think people are getting too carried away with projections of how this will change films."Virtual reality, however, is already changing video games. Epic Games founder and gaming industry legend Tim Sweeney recently laid out his predictions for the future of the industry, noting that the next year will be "a watershed time for VR."
"It's going to change the world," he said. "The hardware is going to double in quality every few years for another decade, to the point where, 10 years from now, it's going to be hard to tell the difference between virtual reality and the real world."
The making of 'Kaiju Fury'
In terms of film, Doven doesn't see it just yet. Even his predictions for the future of VR lean more toward gaming than movies. In the middle of our conversation, he throws out an idea that he says is "very outrageous." Spoiler: It's not outrageous at all. In fact, it's a burgeoning billion-dollar industry. Doven's big idea for VR is, essentially, eSports.
Doven imagines an auditorium packed with fans of a particular game, and two players strapped into VR headsets on stage. The fans are clapping, screaming and -- perhaps most importantly -- engaged in a social experience while they watch professional players battle each other in a virtual world. This is the basic setup behind professional gaming tournaments -- eSports -- such as the 2013 League of Legends World Championships, which sold out the Los Angeles Staples Center and attracted 32 million viewers worldwide via live, online streaming. The premise of eSports is simple: Get the best players in the world to duke it out in a virtual game on stage, in front of millions of cheering, sobbing, excited fans.
"Now that's drama and that's conflict," Doven says. "There it is. It shows it works virtually -- it doesn't matter if it's virtual or real; people will pay for that. And it's a group experience; they can all cheer together."
A FOCUSED, SOCIAL EXPERIENCE
Films are synonymous with theaters -- going out for dinner and a movie, waiting in line for hours to snag great seats at midnight premieres, downing overpriced popcorn and candy. This physical experience presents a major barrier for VR movies in the mass market. With theaters, movies are social. Virtual reality is solo.
"You're kind of leaving your body unguarded, sitting there as you're experiencing all of this stuff and people are watching you experience it. It's a little odd."
"Film's traditional experience -- a shared theater -- is always going to be hard to break away from," LePore of Perception NYC says. "Even though VR would be a massive step forwards in terms of narrative immersion, there's always a chance that it could land alongside other advances that are yet to be universally adopted -- 3D, 4K, 4D, etc."
Doven says that bringing virtual reality to cinemas isn't as simple as handing out 3D glasses, or slapping goggles and headphones on every chair. He doesn't entertain the idea of virtual theaters or entering a "social" environment while sitting on your own couch. To him, a social experience is a physical one, and using virtual reality in public would simply be weird. That's one of its inherent problems.
"It would be maybe a little vulnerable, too," he says. "You're left there alone and you can't see or hear. ... You're kind of leaving your body unguarded, sitting there as you're experiencing all of this stuff and people are watching you experience it. It's a little odd. It's not my favorite. The VR experiences that I've had were fascinating and interesting, but not something that I kind of wanted a lot more of to experience. I wasn't craving for those headsets and goggles, and that claustrophobic feeling, that lack of focus. It's flawed -- it's not yet worked out to be a brilliant user experience."
That brilliant user experience hinges heavily on camera control, one of the biggest differences between traditional film and VR film. When a viewer straps on a headset, focus transfers from the director to every single audience member. The point of VR is not to deliver a static experience to a different kind of screen; it allows for unique movement within any on-screen environment, which can lead to unique stories for each viewer.
'Saving Private Ryan'
Doven offers an example from Saving Private Ryan -- during battle scenes, the movie is chaotic, frantic and frenzied, and in these moments the viewer would feel this wherever he looks, completely surrounded by the horrors of war. But, what about scenes that aren't as panicked, ones without clear visual cues? Doven wonders, what if an audience member decides to stay on the boat, to not step into battle at all? The movie ends before it even begins, in that case.
"The filmmaking technique involves -- the rules of composition involve -- taking the attention where you want it to go," he says. "You want them to focus in on a certain thing, or you want their eye trails to look around or you want them to be dispersed. You want to create an effect as a director or a filmmaker or a producer or a cinematographer. Challenges present themselves when they can look anywhere they want."
Two VR moviegoers would most likely view two different films, once again detracting from the "shared" movie experience. However, all hope is not lost. Doven predicts that in the hands of a true artist -- he names Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams and Cameron Crowe -- VR could, eventually, create emotive experiences for every audience member.
"Because they're great storytellers," Doven says. "They're great artists. They're great communicators. And they're using the technology to communicate something or create an effect on you."
NextVR's virtual reality camera system
Sciretta similarly pins the future of VR film on creative artists and storytellers, and the way they may overcome problems of passive viewing.
"Now sure, maybe we have yet to see a filmmaker really use VR to its potential as a storytelling tool, but it just seems to me that you're following the action around you and it eventually feels like work in what should be a more enjoyable, passive experience," he says. "It's definitely a new experience, but I don't think I would want to watch features in this construct."
Not yet, at least.
A MARKETING DISTINCTION
Virtual reality occupies a gray area between cinema and gaming. Is a film that's controlled by the audience actually a game? Is something truly a game when the only thing the player controls is the camera? Is virtual reality neither film nor gaming? In the end, the debate may come down to whichever term is more marketable.
"Film is definitely an easier sell because it's a passive experience that anyone with eyes can take in," Sciretta says. "But with VR you are asking audiences to involve themselves when I think most viewers would like to just sit back and relax. I think there is an easier sell for VR in the gaming world because the interactivity is way more compelling. But in the end, I think gamers also just want to sit back and have fun playing games."
An early Valve VR prototype
The creative team at Perception NYC approaches VR with respect for both film and gaming, but with a goal to create something entirely new. LePore believes that the richest, most soulful experiences will take cues from both industries.
"I think we're all struggling to find an appropriate label," he says. "Film and gaming are just jumping-off points -- they are our most familiar comparable experiences. Eventually the experiences will become ubiquitous, at which point they will transcend film, gaming, productivity, social interaction and more."
Whatever label VR ends up with, it probably won't start with film, Doven says.
"I am not seeing it," he says. "And yet, we look at movies like Blade Runner and Total Recall, movies that involve virtual reality technology, and we know that's in the future of our society. We recognize that society will get to a place where people are 'plugging in' and experiencing memories, and experiencing whatever can be experienced -- they're experiencing it virtually, as opposed to physically, and creating emotion. We know that that is in the future of this society. That's for sure."