We're living in an age where the Holodeck from Star Trek is making the march from science fiction to reality. Our experiences with the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift showed what tremendous progress has been made in the field of virtual reality.
With these devices, there is a tremendous sense of "presence", of actually being in the virtual world. With the Vive, we wanted to reach out and touch things with our hands, and stood mesmerised under a sweep of snowfall.
Even with the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2, which is a significantly older prototype; newer versions boast several improvements, and the consumer version will likely be even more polished, the feeling of being there is real. You'll feel dizzy after riding in a virtual roller coaster, and some of the horror games made for the Rift Will leave you shrieking in terror. The sense of presence means that you very quickly start to feel like you're really there.
(Also see: Five Essential Oculus Rift Gaming Experiences)
For most people though, VR right now is going to be limited to Google Cardboard - you can buy the headset online for less than Rs. 500, and it only needs a smartphone to power the experience. It's still an interesting experience, and one that can really help drive home the power of VR. One of the easiest ways to show people what it's capable of is with 360 degree videos. YouTube now has a channel for 360-degree videos, and if you've never experienced VR before, it can really blow your mind.
Because of this, there's a growing belief that films will help bring virtual reality to the mainstream. In July, Oculus VR debuted a virtual reality film, about an animated hedgehog called Henry, and it's the second film now from the Oculus Story Studio, an internal production company that Oculus established last year.
This belief is why we're seeing devices like the Bublcam, a spherical camera that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter and has now started shipping; another similar camera is the Sphericam 2, a 360-degree 4K camera for VR filmmaking.
There's a lot of support for these kinds of projects, and that reflects the current optimism that most technology buffs (including us) feel towards VR. But that doesn't mean that it is justified, or that mainstream adoption of VR will follow quickly. So far, much of the conversation around VR has been around gaming, and that makes a lot of sense, because in video games, your perspective is what the universe is built around. Games put you in the centre of the universe, and ask you to look around the world and interact with it, and that's very well suited to VR as an experience.
But it doesn't really translate well into cinema as we understand the term. The Warcraft video we talked about earlier, for example, features you flying over a city on top of a gryphon. It makes for a great and sweeping shot, and you can see other beasts swoop past you in the sky while your eye takes in the details of the city below you. But that alone is not a really useful way to tell a story.
The Avengers video is very thrilling, because the action can and does surround you; there's a central focus but there's also a lot of small details that are happening all around so there's something to see no matter what. But even as an action scene, it ends up feeling unfocused and confusing; it's overwhelming and when you turn to focus on a small detail, you're afraid of missing out on the main scene.
It's possible to enjoy the video and take in all the different perspectives because it's just a short clip, not even one scene; but having to re-watch a feature length film multiple times to see everything important sounds more like a chore than an experience worth looking forward to.
But that's not all - when you're watching a movie, most people are only thinking about the plot, the dialogues, and possibly the performance by the actors. But a well-crafted film tells you much more, through the use of different types of shots and lighting, and by carefully controlling your perspective. A VR experience changes the relationship between the film and the viewer, and will require a complete re-imagining of the language of cinema to truly effectively tell long form stories. For instance, in the first person view of virtual reality, even simple things like cutting between scenes starts to be a challenge.
Think of it like this - in a play, it would be possible for the audience to walk around between the actors, and examine each scene for their own perspective. But most plays still take place on a stage, with the audience watching from a distance. This allows us to see the whole story, which the director is trying to tell us; it allows him to choose what to show and what to hide, in service to telling a story.
That of course discounts the practical problems of letting everyone come on to the stage while a performance is on. But VR lets you do exactly that - go in between a scene, literally - without the practical problems; as a result, it disrupts the language of cinema which has been built over a very long time.
Can this be adapted to a medium where the audience decides what's important, and worth their attention? It's certainly not impossible, but for now, VR remains better suited for experiences, for inserting people into scenarios that they wouldn't be able to try out for themselves, rather than for telling a story through cinema. Games are one way of doing this - a perfectly safe virtual roller coaster, or a spacewalk along the International Space Station, are some other ways in which VR will be immediately appealing. But for now, don't expect any VR movie to draw the same kind of attention as the next Avengers film, which you'll watch in a cinema hall or on your TV.