Virtual Reality Will Transform Cinema in 2016
By Oliver Franklin Wallis
So far, the rise of virtual reality (VR) has been driven by video games. Sony’s PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive, made in partnership with Valve, are built by gaming companies; Palmer Luckey built the first Oculus Rift for gaming (and recently partnered with Xbox). But in 2016, as VR headsets become available to consumers — starting with Oculus in Q1 — other forms of entertainment will begin to break through. The most significant: film (no, not the adult kind). Not everyone plays games, but many go to the cinema and a majority watch TV. If VR is to reach mass adoption, it will be filmed content, rather than gaming, that fuels it.
Hollywood has been slowly catching on to the potential of VR. Major studios, from Fox to Paramount, have experimented with the form through tie-ins to established franchises, from Interstellar to Game of Thrones. So far, few have been more than stunts. But with VR headset sales predicted to hit 12.2 million in 2016, according to investment bank Piper Jaffray, the industry is now taking it seriously. Head to major film festivals such as Sundance or Tribeca and you’ll see scores of executives donning headsets to watch innovative, high-quality content being produced by indie filmmakers. VR tech companies have recognised the importance of video: in January 2015, Oculus launched its Story Studio, helmed by a former Pixar director, to produce film content for the platform.
“Film is an antiquated term. We call them ‘experiences’,” says Chris Milk, founder of LA-based VR production company Vrse.works. An artist and film-maker, Milk was an early innovator in VR cinema, having produced an acclaimed music video for Beck’s “Sound and Vision”. Taken by the form, he founded Vrse.works, which produces VR content for companies including Vice and NBC. A typical Vrse.works film is a thrilling experience: take Walking New York, a nine-minute documentary produced for The New York Times about the French street artist JR. The short opens with the viewer sat face-to-face with the artist in his studio; as JR speaks, the viewer is free to gaze around at his work littering the space. Later, you experience a 360° time-lapse shot from the centre of Times Square, as if reality is warped and distorted.