So, just in case you hadn't heard: Virtual Reality is here.
The Oculus Rift does indeed deliver on the promise of Virtual Reality, a mere 20 years later than promised. I've got two in the studio at the moment, and they are absolutely not over-hyped: the Rift is the first technology in 20 years that has made me consider moving from producing straight-up CGI animated movies to a new artform. The sense of immersion is incredible, the technology's workable, and the reaction videos are very amusing.
Naturally, people have immediately asked three questions: "Is this going to cause kids to kill people?", "Will there be porn in VR?", and "Does this mean that movies will be VR from now on?" The answers to the first two are, respectively, "probably not" and "oh, hell yes." But the answer to the third question is more complicated.
Film critic Roger Ebert was one of many movie fans fascinated with the possibility of VR:
"Virtual reality is still more theory than practice, but for a movie critic, it holds out fascinating possibilities. What is a movie, after all, but a crude form of VR, in which we see and hear what the filmmaker desires? Anyone who has ever laughed or cried at the movies has experienced a form of VR."
So, are all our blockbusters going to end up in VR?
No. What we'll end up with is altogether stranger than that.
Well, actually, in the most banal sense of the phrase the Oculus Rift is already absolutely fantastic for movies. Want to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode on an 80' screen? Virtual reality can do that. Put on a pair of high-quality headphones, and a press of a button can take you from your cramped spare room to an entire dedicated IMAX theater just for you. VR cinema apps are one of the fastest-moving areas of early VR development, with multi-user Rift cinema applications giving that community feel (hopefully without an "irritating teen texting through the movie" simulator) and the first virtual reality-based film festivals already a matter of history.
But most people aren't asking whether we're going to end up eating virtual popcorn watching our DVDs on a virtual screen. So - are we going to end up inhabiting our movies?
There are several pretty major obstacles in the way of translating movielike storytelling straight into full immersive VR. First, and most obviously, there's no frame. Filmmakers use the shape of the screen and the rules of composition within that to direct your eye to matters of importance within the story. Is the character who's talking right now experiencing an emotional change that's important to the story? Then I can fill the frame with his face. Is there an important piece of sleight of hand? Then I can fill the screen with nothing but a close-up of the magic trick in progress, to make sure you don't miss it and subsequently lose the thread of the plot as a whole.
In a true VR experience, you're looking at a panorama by default. The viewer can look at any of the participants in a conversation, can look anywhere in an action scene, can stare around at a vista and miss the key elements. It'd be entirely possible to miss the characters entirely if dropped into a "Lord of the Rings"-like landscape.
These aren't unsolvable problems. It's still possible to direct attention with other compositional tools like lighting, lines within the scene, and sound effects. Continuity of movement will play a huge part too. But in considering this, we hit a significantly larger problem: sure, we can get around the fact that we can't force our viewer's attention to a close-up. But how do we deal with the problem that we can't move or cut at all?
When I said earlier that people who'd just experienced VR for the first time tend to ask three questions, I was lying. They usually only ask one - "Oh, god, I feel a bit funny. Where's the bathroom?". It turns out that VR is spectacularly successful at two things: total immersion, and making you want to barf.
There's been a lot of research into "VR Sickness" recently, and the news isn't good for movies-in-VR. It turns out that one of the major causes of VR sickness is rapid or unexpected movement outwith the user's control. Users seem to be able to cope provided there's an obvious visual reason for the movement, but otherwise, movement you can't control sends you right off to talk to Huey on the big porcelain telephone.
So, for a filmmaker, that means no tracking shots, certainly no rapid flythroughs, and worst of all - no cuts. Cuts - film editing as a whole - are one of the most fundemental tools of movie storytelling, and removing them sends us back in time to the dawn of cinema, before Eisenstein, back to 1910 and the Kuleshov Effect.
So what's to be done?
Well, it looks like we're going to have to develop a narrative form which allows us to embody the viewer in some way. Needless to say, virtual reality porn is already a thing, and the approaches that are proving successful there may be instructive. (I'm not going to link to any, um, outstanding examples of the genre here, but the OculusNSFW subreddit has a good overview (NSFW, obviously) ).
So far, all reasonably workable VR porn adopts a "breaking the fourth wall" approach, either by having performers perform to the viewer and treat him/her as a voyeur, or more dramatically by placing the viewer straight into the scene with his/her viewpoint positioned where one of the actors' heads can be assumed to be. This ties in with both Oculus VR's best practise document, which recommends giving the VR participant a visible body in the virtual space, and some of the more successful game experiences in VR.
Half-Life 2, probably the most successful semi-narrative experience in VR so far, doesn't provide a visible body, but its story-based sections are startlingly effective because of their focus on and interaction with the player - to the point that a friend of mine nearly threw himself over backward when one of the game's totalitarian guards attacked him.
We're also going to have to either give extremely clear cues any time we want to move the viewer's point of view, or we're going to have to let them move themselves via a game-like interface. A rollercoaster experience has been shown to work in the Rift, but there's a limited number of stories that can be told whilst constantly giving clear movement cues - perhaps something set in a cab, with the player as silent observer. It might seem obvious that VR demands a much more game-like approach - indeed, that's what Roger Ebert suggested - but there are significant problems in crafting an engrossing narrative in which the most active participant is the viewer.
Half-Life 2, with its totally silent protagonist, and the experimental narrative game Dear Esther are probably the pinnacle of this approach. Other games mostly move to cutscenes for their dramatic development, and whilst that can produce extremely powerful results, it drags us right back to Vomit City, Population You.
So where to look? My current theory is that we need to look right back before cinema, to theater - and specifically to experimental theater. Playwrights and theater directors have long ago solved the problem of crafting a narrative that allows their audience to view it from any angle, and theater is ahead of any other artform in creating a narrative experience that neither relies on the viewer playing a central role nor ignores them utterly - drafting the audience as an element of the performance.
I'll be honest, I don't have anything like all the answers on this one yet, although I'm continuing to experiment - what do you think?