In my Scientific American column this month I argued against the notion that traditional movies, where we all sit and face the same screen, are dead. Yes, virtual reality (VR) headsets are cool for movies—they let you turn and look around inside a scene—and great for games. But for storytelling? Not so much, because the director has no way to direct your attention.
Here's a look at some of the first VR "movies" and how they tried to solve the attention-directing problem.
This debut animated movie from the Oculus Story Studio (the filmmaking division of the VR goggles company) takes place in a lovely nighttime forest where a robot's hand is scurrying around, looking for its owner. The filmmakers employ tricks like a firefly, a swooping bird and audio cues to direct you to look toward the action. Alas, there's very little interactivity; most of the action takes place right in front of you, just as in a regular movie. If you turn your head, you simply miss the action.
What would VR add to a Hollywood movie preview? Just about nothing. In this trailer for the 2015 Cate Blanchett movie you're standing in a department store. You can look all around you but there's really no point. Cate is only in one place: dead ahead, at a restaurant table, talking. And you can't move around.
Here's an experimental VR film from Mini (the carmaker). There's a real attempt at a narrative here, but it feels wrong. The actors are standing so far away that you can't see their faces, and you can't move. You can look around the environment but then you'll again risk missing the action and wind up not having any idea what just happened. Honestly, this little tale would have worked better without the VR.
“Walking New York”
The New York Times has launched an effort to include VR. At their site you can view a number of news videos shot in VR—either just through a phone app or by placing you phone in special cardboard goggles. Most of the time there's not much added by the VR; you can turn and look around you but you'll miss the action in front of you. One, about an innovative photographer, hints at both the perils of live-action VR shooting (you can often see bits of the camera mechanism in the shot—kind of hard to hide, when you're filming in 360 degrees) and the promise (a scene in a helicopter is thrillingly immersive, especially when you look down outside the open door).