Movies for an Audience of one!

As modern cinema professionals we like to think the exhibition industry is a hotbed of innovation, but, as Mark Trompeteler illustrates, today’s technology often takes inspiration from the past — not least the contemporary virtual reality experience.

Words: Mark Trompeteler


In recent years much has been written, presented and debated on virtual reality and cinema. Yet, until now, true VR has always involved an individual viewing moving pictures, or an “experience” on their own, usually through wearing a headset. This, of course, runs counter to the mainstream concept of cinema as a communal experience of viewing movies, as part of an audience, in an auditorium, through the technology of projection.


Such individual viewings of VR experiential movies by points to a different model of income generation. These experiences tend to be shorter in length than feature films and the way an individual pays is via a “pay per view” type arrangement. How income can be generated by such a VR approach is dependent on many factors — and is perhaps the subject of another article. (Good thinking — Ed). The key issue of this piece is the sometimes forgotten fact that the first commercial exhibition and exploitation of photographic moving pictures was via viewing devices — slot machines —designed for a single viewing by a single individual, just like VR. Although this was a short-lived phase, it actually predates presentation of movies using projectors.


Movies inside a slot machine


The two earliest coin-operated individual viewing machines that predate film projection were the Kinetoscope and The Mutoscope — they were like primitive VR headsets and were the advanced movie technology of their time, in the mid-1890s, through to the beginning of the twentieth century, operating in the US and Europe. Developed between 1889 and 1891 the Kinetoscope, was a device which allowed one person to view the images on a long loop of film with sprockets. This heralded the long reign of analogue film that became the mainstay of cinema prior to the arrival of the DCP. The illusion of movement was a result of the machine conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source. A flashing electric lamp shone up from beneath the film, casting its circular-format images onto the lens and then through a hooded eyepiece on top of the cabinet. The flash of light was so brief that each frame appeared to be frozen in turn. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared to move thanks to the phenomenon of the persistence of vision. The Kinetoscope was a result of the work of the laboratory and company of the famous US inventor Thomas Edison, and particularly one of his employees: William Dickson.


Partly due to the Kinetoscope’s high cost, other inventors inspired by the opportunity of the birth of a new motion-picture business, thought about inventing a cheaper moving image machine. In late 1894 Dickson, perhaps disgruntled with his treatment at Edison’s company (he left a few months later), communicated an idea for another cheaper movie machine to Herman Norton Marvin and Herman Casler. Casler would perfect the device and patent it as the Mutoscope.


The Mutoscope worked on the principle of the flip book. The individual frames were small black and white photographs arranged like a rolodex on a circular central core. As many as 850 photographs facilitated a viewing image sequence of up to a minute. The individual viewer placed a coin in the machine and turned a handle to operate the circular flick book. The moving sequence of illuminated individual frames was viewed through a hooded magnifying lens viewer for both eyes. The machines were produced and marketed by the American Mutoscope Company which would, within 15 years, develop into the  Biograph Studio. Biograph created some of early cinema’s most important films, as well as launch the movie careers of Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and others.


Parlours and pods instead of auditoria


It is easy to forget that the first commercial movie house was in fact a Kinetoscope Parlour, opened on April 14, 1894, in New York. The venue had 10 machines, set up in parallel rows of five, each showing a different movie. For 25 cents, a viewer could see all the films in either row; half a dollar gave access to the entire bill. This was the very beginnings of a modern revolution in popular culture and entertainment that was shortly to become cinema. Kevin Brownlow in his book “Hollywood: The Pioneers” writes of Edison’s initial reluctance at the idea of using projection to larger audiences. “Edison himself being devoted to the idea of machines in boxes, was anxious not to kill ‘the goose that lays the golden eggs’ by rushing into projection. Too many people would be able to see the film at once, and this would undoubtedly reduce profits”.


VR: the contemporary Mutoscope?


Recently I visited a VR Café in Croydon High Street, South London ( To all intents and purposes it, and the IMAX VR pod at the Odeon Trafford Centre, Manchester, ( aren’t so different from the Holland Brothers’ New York Kinetoscope parlour of 1894, and all the parlours that followed. It is just that society and technology have changed immensely, but the basic principles are the same.


From the outset, the economic and profit advantages of being able to use an expensive piece of kit, day in, day out, to project films to a large audience, one in which every member has paid an admission, was obvious. This compared favourably to the operational and economic disadvantages of maintaining a larger number of less expensive devices but only where one individual would pay a fee per device per viewing. However enthralling and immersive VR is becoming, if cinema history teaches us one thing, it is the strong probability that the economics of the matter will prevent VR from upsetting mainstream cinema, as we currently know it, for some time to come.