As a concept, virtual reality has been a mainstay of science fiction cinema for years. From Tron in 1982 to the Matrix in 1999 and Inception in 2010, the idea of experiencing a reality other than the one we are in has held a certain fascination for generations of filmmakers and viewers alike. All the more exciting then, that we are now entering the age of virtual reality.
Now I’m not one for gimmicks and have always been sceptical about advances such as 3DTV, but virtual reality, or VR as it is becoming better known, is of a different magnitude entirely. It very likely represents the biggest development in television since the invention of the TV itself. When you think about it, all the of the other developments have been, to one extent or another, add-ons, improvements in quality, or changes in back-end technology such as plasma and LED technology replacing the good old-fashioned CRT. But still, whether watching a broadcast on a black and white TV in the 1950s or a 60 inch LED TV in 2015, the fact that the viewer is watching moving images on a flat screen was essentially unchanged.
So what makes VR so different? The most obvious point is the extent of the immersive experience. As a VR user, the virtual world created by the VR filmmaker offers a complete 360 degree visual reality, while head tracking technology allows the user to look in any direction.
With VR headsets including Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard already on the market, and many more devices to hit shelves throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016, the industry is fast gaining traction. Indeed, a growing number of apps, short films, and of course games are becoming available all the time.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, major advances in VR-related technology have opened up the potential of the medium. New and improved ways of stitching footage together to make true 360 degree images and dedicated VR cameras are now making their way into the market and into the filmmaker’s tool set. Meanwhile, filmmakers with an eye on a VR future are becoming well-versed in this medium and are fast learning what works and what doesn’t.
Indeed, numerous issues arise in the brave new world of VR film. For example, how should the filmmaker coerce the viewer to move in a certain direction against their will? Should the plot and action be tailored to minimise the need to move the viewer against their will? These are just some of the questions that VR filmmakers have to ask themselves.
But film is just one of the main areas of potential for VR in film and TV production; the other is capturing live action from events such as sports and concerts. Just imagine being able to watch the Wimbledon final live from the side of the court or a World Cup match from the point of view of the referee. While the benefits for viewers are obvious, so is the potential financial pay-off for the broadcasters involved, and certainly VR filming rights from events look set to command big money. In an age when piracy is robbing the broadcast and production industry of funding, VR could offer a welcome influx of consumer interest and ultimately, funds. This also bodes well for the wider production ecosystem, as it will mean demand for new types of cameras, software and skilled professionals.
While the exact way VR will play out in film and TV industry is anybody’s guess, it seems obvious that VR will blaze a trail, creating an entirely new world of filmmaking, and fundamentally changing the rules of live broadcast. That’s the reality.