As any tech headline will tell you, 2016 is the Year of Virtual Reality. Every billion-dollar corporation and its brother are rushing into the VR-headset market (Sony, Samsung, Google, Microsoft, HTC). Ever since 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus, a fledgling VR company, for $2 billion, journalists and investors have become part of the hype machine.
With this technology, image-filled goggles immerse you in a world. When you turn your head in any direction, your “camera angle” changes—an obvious tool for games. Why just shoot aliens in front of you when you can fire behind you, too?
But according to the tech's advocates, the next step is VR movies. Fox, Disney and Lionsgate have already committed huge sums to producing 360-degree movies.
According to the pundits, these immersive films will make traditional movies seem pathetic. “Even the greatest cinematic achievements are inherently oppressive to the viewer,” asserts Digital Trends. “The camera tells you what to look at.” Ewww. Who'd want that?
And according to Gizmodo, the VR movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival could be the “first nails in the flatties' coffin.” (“Flatties” is the derogatory term for traditional movies.)
Okay then. VR movies, where you can look around, will replace flat movies, which are boring and bossy. Right?
In the short term, it's easy to see why. VR equipment is expensive ($600 for Oculus Rift's headset, plus $1,000 for a compatible computer). And the headset is far too heavy to wear for a two-hour movie.
Then there's the technical challenge: VR movies are ridiculously difficult to shoot. Even when you're shooting a flatty, it takes enormous effort to keep lights, crew and vehicles out of the shot. Where will you hide your equipment, lights and crew when the camera films 360 degrees around it?
But those are small potatoes next to the towering problem that no VR filmmaker has yet cracked: audience attention.
Movie directors don't just direct the actors; they also direct your attention, using camera angle, lighting, selective focus, even sound to create a desired effect. A movie is a story that everyone experiences the same way because we all witness the same events.
But in a spherical movie, how will we know where to look? How can a director be sure we'll see the unmasking of the villain off to the right if we've been inspecting the wreckage of the car behind us?
That's exactly the problem you'll encounter in some of the first VR movies. In Backwater, a short 360-degree VR movie sponsored by Mini (the carmaker), the hero shoves a factory worker into a pile of crates and then runs off camera. I was still looking at the worker, wondering if he was okay, when a crash off (my) screen told me that I'd just missed the next major action point.
Sometimes graphic signals direct you where to turn your head, like a firefly in Lost, a Pixar-like VR animation made by Oculus, or arrows in some of the New York Times's experimental VR scenes. Pretty clumsy.
In most VR “movies,” though, there is no plot. Somebody has plopped down the panoramic camera somewhere interesting—a marketplace, a ship, a sporting event—and you just look around.
That's immersive and interesting. And some of the games are exceptionally cool. But it's not storytelling. They're not movies.
History tells us two things about new technologies that are predicted to change life as we know it. First, they settle into niches, but they rarely become household objects. (See also: 3-D printers and the Segway scooter.) And second, new inventions rarely replace older ones as they're predicted to; they just add on.
So, yes, there are already very successful VR scenes, VR games, VR concerts, VR real estate “visits” and VR city tours. Someday there may be hybrid movie-games.
But VR will remain a novelty experience, something like IMAX movies or those hydraulic “4-D” rides at amusement parks, malls and science museums. Until someone figures out a way to tell the same story to every VR viewer, those oppressive, linear flatties will remain our cinema.