It’s little wonder that so many people are drawn to virtual reality considering the way actual reality has been trending.
VR was a hot topic last week at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the annual convention of the National Association of Theater Owners. The emphasis was on bringing it out of its traditional setting — a cellphone strapped into a headset in your living room — and into more social, public arenas.
“People think virtual reality is a fairly new form of entertainment. It’s actually not,” said Ted Schilowitz of 20th Century Fox, whose honest-to-God job title is “futurist.” What he refers to as “personalized entertainment,” he said, goes back to the days of nickelodeons more than a century ago. “So the idea of sticking your face into something and looking at something and being immersed into something is not a new form of the art. It’s actually been around for a long time.”
During CinemaCon, people were sticking their faces into all sorts of things.
There were fairly traditional VR movie promotions for “Power Rangers” and “47 Meters Down,” the latter of which put you in place of its star, Mandy Moore, who’s trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean. It offered a 360-degree look at the air bubbles floating toward the water’s surface as well as the shark that attacks the cage — not to mention the resulting blood in the water.
A more elaborate movie tie-in came in the form of “The Mummy Zero Gravity VR Experience,” which placed users in the state-of-the-art Positron Voyager chairs that debuted this year at Sundance. Essentially a documentary about the 64 takes Tom Cruise and actress Annabelle Wallis endured in zero gravity to get the perfect shot for “The Mummy,” the experience promised to make you feel weightless. It did not. But the Voyager chair at least was synced to the footage so it moved users toward what they were supposed to be looking at, rather than leaving them spinning around on their own like idiots.
“People will love it if it’s free, and they’ll probably hate it if they have to pay for it. There’s no kind of in between,” said Austin Barker, executive vice president of creative content for Universal Pictures Marketing, which developed the “Mummy” experience. “So we have to be real careful about how to keep the greediest of people away from our marketing content.”
Movie lobby attractions
Two of the VR experiences on display were designed with movie theater lobbies in mind.
The 4DX VR Sports Attraction is basically a bicycle frame — the company also makes kayak and snowboard versions — for users to sit on while they take part in a virtual reality hoverbike race. The frame is coordinated with the video to jerk around like a cross between those coin-fed mechanical horses that used to be outside grocery stores and the bull at Gilley’s. It came with a suggested price of $5 per experience.
The MX4D VR pod system, meanwhile, was designed to be free. With six prominent locations on the pod for advertising, theaters could install the system in their lobbies and let the ad revenue pay for it. The two-person pods are capable of playing everything from movie trailers to video games to branded content. At CinemaCon, the full-motion chairs were synced to advertising for Coca-Cola that, when it was over, blasted users with the scent of the soft drink.
Site-based VR experience
But for sheer wow factor, nothing compared to the rollout of Nomadic’s new site-based virtual reality experience.
After putting on VR goggles and a backpack containing a computer hard drive, users walked through a door that looked and felt as though it was opening up into a warehouse. You had to walk across a chasm on a wooden beam that swayed with your body’s motion. At one point, you swung open the gate to a freight elevator and pulled a lever to go to the second floor to defeat alien drones.
While it was obvious there were no actual alien drones in there, there also was no wooden beam — just a bar with haptic feedback to make you feel unbalanced. There wasn’t even a second floor. But the VR was so convincing, I’d have bet money I traveled up at least one level. As for the cavernous “warehouse,” the whole thing fit inside a 20-foot-by-30-foot room.
It was astounding.
“We see this as a whole new medium of entertainment,” said Kalon Gutierrez, head of growth for Nomadic, which hopes to go public with its technology by the end of the year.
Ideally, Gutierrez said, the company would have a 40-foot-by-60-foot space — something that could be accomplished by removing the seats from one of a multiplex’s smaller auditoriums — that could accommodate three groups of six people at a time. Participants would be able to interact with the members of their own group, fully realizing the social nature of virtual reality.
“We believe there’s a whole social aspect of this that can be leveraged that we’re really going to be working on as we develop and go into market,” Gutierrez said. “It addresses a lot of different needs.”
Not the least of which is getting users out of their living rooms.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.