Recently, I was talking to some friends about virtual reality, it’s limits and it’s possibilities. Both my friends have filmmaking backgrounds, so the majority of our conversation revolved around that.
They were hung up on the limitations of the now: 2017. When using VR today, you are either in a video game where you must use controllers to move, or a passive character in a fixed location. On the former, the technology has a long way to go. The graphics and controls are still a little crude, making it difficult to escape into the world of the game. On the latter, you’re very limited in the scope of the storytelling. How many films can you be stuck in a seat for? In the end, my friends concluded it’s main use is for advertising.
What I think they were missing was the amazing possibilities for the future. Many companies see the value in VR, and not some passing gimmick for advertising. The New York Times put out a VR film noir. This sort of creativity harkens me back to my time in film school, and reading about nickelodeon’s. For those unfamiliar, nickelodeons were the first form of commercial distribution of films. In the 1900s, people would go to nickelodeons and watch films individually. Soon after, projection was perfected, allowing the dawn of the movie theater. Is feels like we are at that stage of VR, where we watch the equivalent of “Workers Leaving the Factory.” We have yet to even reach “The Great Train Robbery” stage in VR. At the end of “The Great Train Robbery” one of the actors playing a robber shoots his pistol directly into camera. People would scream in terror, not sure if they were really being shot at. This sort of visceral reaction has yet to reach VR users.
There is one difference when comparing this technology to that of early film. Video games add a wrinkle to the whole tech. In fact, the trend is that VR games are immensely more popular than VR movies. PSVR was the latest large release. It is still in the toddler stages, with most of the games are fun, if only for a few hours. There is a certain similarity to Pacman and Kong, where there was a ‘story,’ but it wasn’t too revealing.
Still, there are fun innovations. Last year, I went to an event for Castrol’s Edge, a VR experience. Their innovation was in a reactive seat. With pinpoint timing, you feel each turn and drift in your whole body as you race through a virtual racetrack. Things like the Edge seat and this harness are helping pave the way for the future.
I don’t think VR will replace film the same way film replaced theater. The mediums of so different in many different ways. Film has forced perspective, VR does not. Film allows editing and montage, which seems like a far cry now in VR. I think VR will become more popular, and it’s practical uses, such as simulated surgery, will help better the world. I just think those latent fears won’t be realized.
And if they are it will be because of the innovations by the Georges Méliès, Sergei Eisensteins and Dziga Vertovs of the world. Malcolm Gladwell, my premier source of sociological ideas, has talked about the theory that it takes a generation (about 20 years) for a society to fully embrace an idea. ATMs were his example, but I think the same could be said for film and video games. Hopefully VR doesn’t take that long.