Full Immersion: Hollywood Eyes New Storytelling Methods

The dreams of a serious virtual reality, the kind of full-tilt total immersion that have been a part of the collective imagination for as long as we've had computers, had seemingly come and gone. Despite the fever dream virtual realities imagined in films like Tron, The Lawnmower Man, and perhaps most evocatively in Kathryn Bigelow's barely remembered but quite robust on a fresh viewing, Strange Days, we've been left wanting when it comes to virtual reality…until now. The VR scene has had a recent rebirth in the eyes of the consumer, and Hollywood is making sure to be along for the ride.

Oculus VR, the company founded by twenty-one year old Palmer Luckey, is responsible for the newly vested interest in virtual reality.  After raising a considerable sum on Kickstarter ($2.4 million), and over $91 million in additional investments, it’s not a surprise the Oculus Rift has everyone’s interest piqued.  And a recent acquisition by Facebook, for the small sum of $2 billion, will guarantee that even more people will have access to the Rift when it releases sometime next year.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset equipped with two 1080p screens (one for each eye), and positional head tracking to interpret your movements.  With the addition of a 3D soundscape, it’s easy to lose yourself in whichever world is on the screen.  Originally intended for games, the Rift has also garnered the attention of production studios such as Fox, Warner Bros. and Legendary, which took their efforts to the recent San Diego Comic Con. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to step into Professor Xavier’s mind while he searches for mutants through Cerebro, or what it felt like to crawl into the cockpit of a Jaeger from Pacific Rim, or, if you've got a morbid streak (who doesn't?) and wanted to get your head cut off by the Headless Horseman himself, your curiosity can be sated by putting your head inside a Rift.

Taking the immersion a step further, the Rift wasn’t the only gadget lending a hand to the experience.  For the Cerebro demo, Fox let attendees sit in a wheelchair modeled after Professor Xavier’s, and moving was as simple as pushing or pulling a joystiq. Johnny Lerner, of Capture Interactive (the creators of the demo), said once the attendee first moved the joystick, they were hooked.

HBO also brought along an interactive experience for Game of Thrones fans (there are a few, it would seem), letting attendees ascend the Wall – the massive 700-feet high ice barrier keeping the wildlings and White Walkers at bay – in a shoddy caged elevator that was played such a crucial part in last season's epic battle.

Alongside the headset, people were blasted with gusts of cold air while they stood inside a replica of the Wall's elevator, with a shaky floor included. This type of four dimensional entertainment has gotten a recent boost with the 4DX theater in the United States is getting some pretty rave reviews. The ability to fully immerse oneself in these fictional worlds, long a staple of how we used to assume the future of entertainment would be, now finally seems to be a graspable reality. In fact, there's technology in development that will allow cameras to film, and capture sound, in three dimensions.

In a post following their acquisition of Oculus VR, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences.” Experiences like the Jaeger Pilot demo and the Cerebro demo are not only astonishing ways to experience stories, they are also powerful marketing tools that can drum up enormous amounts of hype and interest for a film before or during it’s release. But why stop there? The Rift can be an incredible learning tool in every field, including filmmaking.

Imagine seeing a scene unfold before your eyes, but having a 360-degree view of the set.  Seeing the director in action, the way the lights are set up, how the production mixer and boom operator capture a group of 8 people properly, and so on and so forth. The art of the special features on DVD’s and Blu-Rays can be given new life by adding experiences that can be interacted with on an entirely new level.

Oculus VR isn’t the only player in the virtual reality game; Samsung, Sony and Google each have their own plans to bring the technology to new mediums and new places. But the real beneficiary here is the audience. Oculus VR is bringing us a new way to learn and a new escape with an incredible sense of immersion. And with Facebook’s help, the Rift can find it’s way in many more of our homes at a much faster rate.