"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, February 27, 2017

Virtual Reality: Not Coming to a Theatre Near You

Virtual reality may be coming your way, and when it hits, it could hit big—as if all at once. The explosion of computers and cell phones provides two precedents. “Technologists say virtual reality could be the next computing platform, revolutionizing the way we play games, work and even socialize.”[1] Anticipating virtual reality as the next computing platform does not do the technology justice. I submit that it could revolutionize “motion pictures.” Even though the impact on screenwriting and filmmaking would be significant, I have in mind here the experience of the viewer.

Whereas augmented reality puts “digital objects on images of the real world,” virtual reality “cuts out the real world entirely.”[2] As a medium for viewing “films”—film itself already being nearly antiquated by 2017—virtual reality could thus cut out everything but a film’s story-world. The suspension of disbelief could be strengthened accordingly. The resulting immersion could dwarf that which is possible in a movie theatre. Already as applied to playing video games, “such full immersion can be so intense that users experience motion sickness or fear of falling.”[3] Imagine being virtually in a room in which a man is raping a woman, or a tiger is ready to pounce—or eating its prey, which happens to be a human whom you’ve virtually watched grow up. The possible physiological impacts on a viewer immersed in stressful content would present producers with ethical questions concerning how far it is reasonable to go—with the matter of legal liability not far behind, or in front. Watching, or better, participating in a film such as Jurassic Park could risk a heart attack.

On the bright side, the craft of light and storytelling made virtual could enable such amazing experiences that simply cannot be experienced without virtual reality being applied to film. To be immersed on Pandora in a nighttime scene of Avatar, for example, would relegate even the experience of 3-D in a theatre. The mind would not need to block out perspectivally all but the large rectangle at a distance in front. In short, the experience of watching a film would be transformed such that what we know as going to a movie would appear prehistoric—like travelling by horse to someone who drives a sports car.

1. Cat Zakrzewski, “Virtual Reality Comes With a Hitch: Real Reality,” The Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.