Dissolving the Silver Screen: Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality in the Cinematic Experience
One of my fondest childhood memories is that of my grandfather taking me to see ‘The Jungle Book’ in the cinema aged seven for the first time. Sitting in the darkened auditorium with a box of freshly popped corn sitting on my lap watching the screen in front of me come to life was a magical and breath-taking experience. Being a child of the 80s meant television and home movies, thanks to the power of VHS, were not uncommon to me but even with easy access at home the magic of a cinema experience was still enthralling.
The cinematic experience has arguably been the corner stone for mass entertainment over the 20th and 21st century encompassing all types of demographics while spanning across cultural divides to touch every corner of the globe. Regardless of one’s age or background, a trip to the cinema has been an immersive past time for millions of people over the last 100 years allowing them to follow their heroes or heroines across the silver screen.
With the emergence of virtual reality as a narrative vehicle we have begun to see attempts to bring virtual reality to cinema, or perhaps more accurately bring cinema to virtual reality. Big names in the movie making world such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron have shared their excitement to start employing virtual reality in the cinematic experience but what shape would this synergy of two mediums take?
The most obvious answer is the showing of films, or films adapted to VR inside a virtual reality headset. Sitting there in a room with others all wearing a virtual reality headset is already being tried and tested, however I believe this type of experience will see very little traction. Virtual Reality in its current form will not be able to overshadow traditional cinema as it takes away the very thing that makes the cinematic experience so special; the social experience. And although I could put on my ‘Futurist’ hat at this point and stare out into the not-to-distant future to how the technology could be, I am going to stay in the here and now to shed light on what VR will do for cinema today.
While virtual reality is being touted as the ultimate narrative medium I feel the real value today is in augmenting the traditional cinematic experience.
And that augmentation is already being seen within a marketing context with blockbuster films such as the new Blade Runner and recently released Ghost In the Shell releasing free “teaser” virtual reality experiences allowing the user to step into the world of the movie, and although short and a little gimmicky in their current form I expect these teasers will evolve into longer, content rich experiences that will flesh out the film, its narrative and characters in a similar fashion to the “side stories” released with films such as Alien Covenant.
As virtual reality continues its march towards mass consumer adoption we will soon be seeing full movie trailers being released in virtual reality, most likely first exclusively on site at cinemas for audience goers to try an upcoming movie trailer in VR booths or marketing stands before their matinee and later downloadable to mobile VR devices such as the Samsung GearVR or Google Daydream. But what about the actual cinematic experience itself?
Trying hard to keep my futurist hat off my head, I will nod in its general direction; while virtual reality will not overshadow traditional cinema anytime soon, augmented reality might look to augment the actual experience. Just as movie goers today have an option of paying extra for a 3D movie, movie goers tomorrow could have an option of paying extra to use augmented reality glasses to augment the film.
With cheap, reusable augmented reality glasses the auditorium is now the playground of the film director. Imagine watching the next Indiana Jones film but now the jungle and tree vines are swinging and swaying around you, or watching the next Star Wars film with laser fire from a gun duel scarring the walls of the auditorium. The possibilities are endless and offer a new canvas for films to spill out of their silver screen.
Ultimately virtual reality and augmented reality will do very little to dislodge the well rooted pillar of the cinematic experience in the short term, however it will draw the audience ever closer, dissolving the silver screen and teasing them with the dream each of us have had of stepping into our favourite stories and standing shoulder to shoulder with the characters who populate them.