Virtual Reality: Cinema’s Succesor?

Just what part will VR play in the exhibition business — is it a killer app or merely a companion experience? At IBC, the industry debated the hot topic


What part will VR play in cinema’s future? It’s a burning question and one that six VR practitioners tried to answer in an industry session held at IBC and co-chaired by Julian Pinn, exec producer of the IBC Big Screen Experience and Franziska Knoefel, manager of digital revolution at WerbeWeischer.

On-screen examples of how VR might be used with cinema led into Craig Phillips and Travis Graalman of SunnyBoy Entertainment explaining how they worked with Warner Bros. and New Line on the creation of IT: Float – A Cinematic VR Experience, a VR experience to accompany the launch of the horror film, IT. Premiered at 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, a custom-built “VR School Bus” has travelled the US showcasing the IT VR Experience.  

They worked with the film director on location to shoot the elements needed, building a custom stereoscopic camera rig, and using VFX scans to recreate locations from the film. The IT Float experience aimed to encourage people to see the film. Their storytellers were helping to support the producer’s vision. We are just at the start with this technology, as Craig summarised: “Sunnyboy is creating tools that one day our children will use in ways we can’t imagine!”

Developing the technology

Kathleen Schröter from Fraunhofer research discussed the organisation’s work on VR. They have built a mirror-based multi-camera system — OmniCam — which allows recording of live video in 360 degree panoramic format, with a resolution of up to 10,000 x 2,000 pixels. Realising that such images will need to be processed and transmitted, they have developed compression techniques that allow images to be processed and displayed on tablets and VR glasses in real-time and to be transmitted live. One clever bandwidth reduction technique is to ensure that the image always has its highest resolution in the area your attention is focused, with everything else less sharp. Kathleen also explained the principles of volumetric video, which makes it possible to generate dynamic 3D models of people, which appear natural, going far beyond conventional virtual characters, with gestures, facial expressions and textures (skin, hair and fabric) recorded in detail. The 3D models of people can be integrated into a virtual scene, and viewers with VR glasses can view these people at close range and from various perspectives ­— you could appear on stage with your favourite actor or musician for example. She also explained how their VR technologies are used in rehabilitation of hospital patients, but said that for cinema applications storytelling will be  uppermost. 

A perfect companion

Giovanni Dolci from IMAX outlined the extensive work that they have been doing to investigate how VR may best be used. He currently sees VR as a companion to cinema, with IMAX VR experiences and the showing of top-quality films going hand-in-hand. IMAX don’t regard VR as a successor or replacement for cinema, but are finding so many synergies between the two that they see a great future for the two together. The company is working on the end-to-end consumer experience and appreciates the importance of developing something customers want to experience repeatedly rather than a ‘try it once’ experience many existing systems provide.

A major philosophical problem is that putting on a headset isolates you from the real world ­— the very opposite of the social, sharing effect we want from cinema. One idea is to use location based apps that bring people together in a social mingling space so that the experience isn’t only restricted to when you have the VR helmet on. IMAX is working with Warner Bros on a VR experience for Justice League. Initially this will involve a free download for your phone allowing you to preview the interactive game, and it is expected that  in December the full, Justice League Virtual Reality: The Complete Experience will be available. IMAX believes that VR will be complementary to moviegoing and their aim is to make IMAX VR experiences as social as possible..

Patrick von Sychowski asked if VR might follow the same trajectory as 3D cinema, which had several false starts over decades before finally becoming established, as digital projection took hold. In answer, Giovanni said that he expected VR to be more successful in communal places than at home — people don’t want to wear a headset at home but may be prepared to do so in a VR cinema location in order to share the experience with friends. As one panel member said — just as watching TV is  very different from going to the cinema, VR is different again. In answer to a question as to how far the industry has got with developing a business model, Giovanni noted that IMAX is piloting various ideas, and is working with exhibitors to learn how to monetise this new technology. Options considered include joint ventures or allowing VR centres to develop technology to meet standards to be set by IMAX.

Craig from SunnyBoy agreed that a revenue share model would be a good way of getting equipment installed in the early days. The value chain will only work if everyone involved can gain. Julian Pinn asked whether there is a standard or best layout for a VR cinema setup yet. The view was that we are still far from an agreed standard — over time the industry will divide into different segments. One questioner queried whether VR and 360 degree cinema are the same thing ­— the answer was a resounding no as 360 degree cinema is generally based around having a camera at one fixed point, whereas interactive VR implies having six degrees of freedom, allowing the viewer to move in all directions. A good example is a VR session where you can effectively walk around a room freely, intermingling with the actors in the performance. VR arcades can be regarded as a case of extreme VR, where perhaps eight people sit together, shooting laser guns at each other. Panel members felt that we must stay flexible in our various definitions and uses of VR, and Giovanni said that all the IMAX VR applications include some degree of interactivity.

A more prosaic question was raised — ‘Isn’t the fact that previous users have caused headsets to get sweaty and smelly over a half hour period likely to turn off the more fastidious from taking part?’. Various panel members gave different answers on cleaning, the use of disposable sweat-bands and the need to pre-book so that equipment could be cleaned in advance, but this highlighted a real potential problem [Ed: This particular problem doesn’t seem to deter go-karting or paintball enthusiasts, so why VR?]

A question about VR’s potential to cause headaches led to the panel’s explanation that content creators are testing camera moves to ensure viewers will be comfortable. It is another constraint film-makers will need to take account of. Better resolution (8K is probably necessary) will help, and controlled cinema conditions may make things better than casual VR headset usage. There may be a need for minimum ages, too.


Creating a magic time machine

When asked to answer the starting question ‘Will VR be cinema’s companion or successor?”, the panel split. Two said ‘companion’, two said ‘both’, and one saying that VR will be a strong competitor to cinema, offering the chance to step into a time machine!   

VR cinemas are already a reality

One of the panellists, Jip Samhoud of Samhoud Media said that cinemas need to broaden their audience profiles, and that VR may play a part in this, but only if a suitable business model can be developed. Samhoud is involved in the world’s first VR cinema in Amsterdam which offers a range of VR experiences. The VR Cinema doesn’t have a screen with seats facing it, moviegoers sit in swivel chairs and put on a VR headset and headphones. Swivel chairs encourage and enable viewers to turn at will to experience the movie in 360 degrees. Open every day, the room seats 100 people — two employees help the customers, and encourage everyone to get together and discuss their experiences. The concept is expanding internationally in China, Finland and Romania.

Jip said content needs to be of reasonable length (currently around 30 minutes per film) in order to make the most of VR storytelling and to get away from gimmicky demos. Jip believes VR will take off, because it is not concentrating on the technology but on storytelling. VR in cinema has a great future, because the experience is best if shared.