Interactive Change of Film and Cinema
Major film and TV studios have been slow taking on VR, whereas it’s currently been driven by video games. Cinema has always been a forum for massive innovation, adding in more realism and immersion. 3D cinema was supposed to be the next big thing and was mass adopted but it’s clearly lost momentum. Referring back to my question, ‘Will VR be a shifting point for film and cinema, transforming passive audiences into active audiences?’. I want to know if studios and cinemas are ready for the next new medium.  

Major studios from Fox to Warner Bros have experimented with VR through tie-ins with franchises as a means to promote. They’re starting with small scale projects such as Warner Bros ‘Batman vs Superman’ and Fox’s ‘The X-Men’.  Currently other studios such as Paramount, Disney and 20th Century (Now owned by Disney) have created their very own VR studio divisions, investing millions and looking at how they’re going to use VR to create immersive experiences within film. 20th Century Fox has partnered with Oculus to adapt over 100 of their back catalogue films into VR movie experiences. 

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Alongside this you’ve got AMC Entertainment announcing a partnership bringing VR to its movie theatres and IMAX rolling out VR arcades both starting in 2018.And to prove that it’s really becoming a huge influence you could head to any major filming festival such as Sundance, Tribeca or Cannes which now have sections dedicated to recognising VR as a new medium. 

Oscar contenders The Martian and The Revenant created immersive and empathy driven experiences designed to give fans of the films the chance to find out what it feels like to be stranded and fighting for survival. The Martian VR Experience took the audience on a 20-minute interactive journey to Mars where they undergo similar challenges faced by Mark Watney (Matt Damon).There are still many improvements to be made. Oculus’ Chief Scientist, Michael Abrash, has said that they’re still focused on further developing visual display (pixel density, quality), audio and tracking (mapping). As he believes products fail as consumers become unsatisfied with the technology and the hype then dies down.

Abrash expects product releases for VR cinema, gaming and live events to begin addressing these challenges and to see continuous product improvement over the next 3-5 years. (Goldmansachscom, 2018)  

“No matter how you feel about it, virtual reality filmmaking and experiential storytelling is happening. And it’s getting better and better. No longer just a gimmick, filmmakers are using the technology to serve the story instead of the other way around.” says Abrash (No Film School, 2018).

Oculus Story Studio was created by Oculus VR to ‘pioneer’ virtual reality filmmaking. Inspiring the VR revolution through immersive storytelling techniques they’ve created short films – ‘Lost’ about a missing robot hand that finds its owner. They said, “Lost was a chance for us to dive in using traditional film techniques to scene staging while grabbing the viewer’s attention.” This was then followed up with ‘Henry’ an Emmy-award winning short about a hedgehog on his birthday who hasn’t got any friends. It’s a fully interactive and immersive experience in which the audience is no longer passively viewing – they’re actively participating in this experience. 
VR has the ability to effect people on a much more emotional level than any other media has been able to before. Referring to McQuail, ‘The concept of cinema created the first mass audience. Hundreds of people gathered in the cinema enjoying the same performed emotions. The audience couldn’t interact with the film; however, some of the members in the audience could interact within each other.” (McQuail, 1997, p. 5). But now because of virtual reality’s immersive properties, audiences can get a better sense of the environments but also feel more empathy and a deep emotional connection to the characters. A very powerful tool for a films visual storytelling but also works just as effectively in documentary film. I found an example that shows just how effective this immersive, emotional experience is for an audience.

The UN teamed up with director Gabo Arora and VR firm Within to create a short VR film documentary. Clouds Over Sidra raising awareness of Syrian refugees’ daily struggles. It features a 12-year-old growing up in a refugee camp in Jordan, home to 130,000 Syrians. As a viewer you’re taken into the situation, closer than what a standard screen could convey. Sidra guides you through her temporary home her activities at school and how her families is coping (Chris Milk, TED Talk 2015).The results were unexpected, after the film premiered they raised over £2.5 billion over 70% more than projected. UN study showed that one in six people made donations after watching the video, which is 2x the normal rate of giving. (Rausch et al. 2016) These are unbelievable results and prove how immersed an audience must be. The UN/ Within collaboration, plus other companies Oculus/ 20th Century, worked to produce new innovative content.

But I’d like to look at a perspective which isn’t from the content creators themselves. 
Not everyone agrees virtual reality is the next big thing. Quite a lot of people believe the current technology is transitional, it’s far from being adopted by mass audiences but no one is quite sure yet. “Most of what these adventurous folks are producing is terrible, which is as it should be.” Says Janet Murray, Professor of the Digital Media at Georgie Tech. “Expanding new formats is difficult work we’ve got this technology but no clear idea of how to fill it with content.” (Mitchell, 2018).

Creating increasingly convincing virtual worlds as technology improves blurring the line between experience and a virtual experience raises some extreme ethical issues. Could companies or even Governments take advantage? In a world of progressively alone together self-obsessing individuals, could VR become the device that makes us discard empathy for good? (Sherry Turkle, 2016) Or worse, it could become the ultimate tool for manipulation. I feel I constantly see fake news articles being shared and spread online which I question. If I thought fake news was confusing imagine encountering a ‘fake experience’. 

There’s also the price – VR equipment ranges in price but you also need a compatible computer, console or smartphone. Google have the £3 cardboard headset but you’ll still need a £400+ smartphone to put in it. The weight is an issue as it’s heavy to wear for long periods of time and people don’t enjoy bulky wired accessories. An interesting find made by the Digital Democracy Survey was that 99% of millennial and generation Z viewers said they engage in an average of four other activities while watching TV or a film – such as texting, using social networks, emails or shopping. (Scientific American 2015) Which of course isn’t possible with a headset strapped to your head. These factors may slow the process of it becoming a mass consumer market. 

Using multiple methods to collate research and gather results from various sources has helped me get a better understanding of whether VR as a new medium will be a shifting point for film and cinema, transforming passive audiences into active audiences.  I will be concluding my results after I’ve reviewed my survey answers as they’ll indicate how the general public feel about virtual reality. 

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