VR and Hollywood

Move over 3D movies, here comes virtual reality – The Washington Post.

The only real conclusion one can draw from this article is that marketers are really excited about VR’s ability to attract attention. Here are 7 reasons to think harder:

1. “Movie theaters” full of HMDs are unlikely (even ignoring hygiene & robustness issues).  The economics don’t make sense for the equivalent of having 300 people watch the same thing on one expensive big screen.

Even factoring in the cost of a new PC or console, we’d more likely see the equivalent of “internet/game cafes” for those who can’t afford their own VR setup at home (plus rentable airline equivalents), more as a niche and trailing edge.

2. Hollywood + VR movies already exist. They’re called games. Now, game developers generally put substantial effort into making their cinematic intros and cut scenes. But even with higher production values, most people watch these a few times and then skip right to the gameplay. The gameplay must be better than the intro movie or the investment will only succeed on YouTube, if at all.

Take-away: interactivity is key.

3. Physical interactivity in VR is not yet ready for prime time. Reason being: the closer you get to the human body for sensing our movement, the more proprioceptive skill we have and the less tolerant we are of noise and other errors.

So in the short-term, the level of interactivity will range from “almost none” to the equivalent of a gaming controller. Designers have to work around those limitations. A good example is to skip touch entirely and use voice to control things.

4. In UX research, we found that people’s levels of comprehension of things like story and character in VR were very poor, probably due to information overload and not knowing where to look for cues. Movies solve this by leading the horse to the water, so to speak, with expert cinematography and more. So the chances of a subtle cinematic narrative are slim until we develop those muscles in VR over many years.

Think more “TV Soap Opera” than “Gosford Park.” And in terms of Presence, think more “Saving Private Ryan” than “The Man from Earth.”

5. Movies are an inherently social experience, esp. going to the theater (which we said isn’t helped by VR). Perfect, you say, because Face/Rift is a social network. Actually, FB today is more a social experience of last resort. It is most social when you don’t have a better way to interact. Just imagine a group of six friends hanging out, noses down, all browsing FB on their so-called smartphones. I know it happens a lot, and they certainly think they’re being social, but who believes it? It’s at its best when it’s connecting people who won’t otherwise see each other.

6. VR movies will initially be more of solo experience that we can talk about and retroactively construct the social element, like talking about the latest episode of “Lost” or “Game of Thrones” the next day. We can feel like we watched them together for some “social backfill.” I’m guessing that the more presence we feel in the VR experience, the harder it is to later backfill in those missing friends, but the more we’ll want to try, leading to more of the feeling that we’re losing real human connections by going so virtual. Prediction.

7. Someone will therefore add avatars to these immersive VR movies to solve this. Good thinking. If captured with high fidelity, this will be a little closer to the quality of being together in person, and there’s always the cool new immersive milieu to explore together.

But here’s the dilemma. If your movie is interactive, you have to solve the holy grail of immersive interactive 3D storytelling, which the fictional Holodeck didn’t even get right. Tony and Tina’s wedding (the interactive play) is probably our best model, but that’s all about the actors making it work.

If your movie is not so interactive but you still add friends and family to the scene, the greater degree of presence ironically makes it more awkward to see them unless they’re transformed into the story, a stark reminder that you’re not actually there. It’d be good for Jurassic time travel, but not so great for Star Wars, where seeing my mother standing next to Darth Vader would change the experience a bit.

Not surprisingly, VR will likely work better for participants who are more physically remote than in the same room — exactly like FB does today. It adds to social interactions where distance makes it harder, but caps it where real proximity would make it easier. It’s no wonder FB likes this view of the future.

For Hollywood, it’s about the business of monetizing attention on one level, and the art of storytelling on another. On second thought, maybe they’re not that different after all.

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