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Virtual Reality Movies Coming to a VR Headset Near You?

Remember Jaws III in 3D? It was supposed to be the next big thing in film entertainment, reviving the 1950s “golden age” of 3D cinema. And then it sucked, despite starring Louis Gossett Jr., and 3D technology and filmmaking dropped off as your feature presentation, mostly relegated to IMAX documentaries.

It took about 25 years before the technology made the investment worthwhile – remember a little film called “Avatar” that broke a few box office records? – and now many studios release 3D versions of many blockbuster movies.

Virtual reality has experienced its own version of boom-bust-boom cycles. Many see 2016 as a watershed period for VR technology, with the release of Oculus and a host of other virtual reality headsets hitting the market. Last month, we told you about six virtual reality content companies to watch, as the nascent industry attempts to grow beyond being just a gamer’s market. This got us to wondering: Just how close are we to seeing a virtual reality movie version of “Avatar,” and will it be worth the ticket price? Plus, we’re giving Mom and Dad a new VR headset this Christmas and we know they love movies.

Telling a virtual reality story

Well, if it’s up to James Cameron, the answer is probably never. The Hollywood director has come out pretty strongly against using the technology to create virtual reality movies. In an interview on Variety, Cameron said there were too many technical challenges: “How are you going make a movie and not move the camera? How can you make a movie where you can’t cut? So there may be a narrative art form that emerges from that, but it’s not a movie.”

Concept design for virtual reality movie "MansLaughter."

Concept design for virtual reality movie “MansLaughter.”

Other filmmakers see VR as a way to experiment with different ways to tell a story. We’re all for innovation, but avant garde and profitable usually don’t occupy the same real estate in any one paragraph. Still, there are some interesting things happening here, led by directors like David Marlett. Last year, Marlett reportedly made what’s been touted as the first-ever feature virtual reality movie “MansLaughter.” The murder mystery, available only on Samsung’s Gear VR, comes at the movie narrative in the VR environment from (literally) a different direction. The 53-minute film has four side-by-side scenes that unfold simultaneously, viewable as you turn your head in different directions.

Marlett also founded a virtual reality movie company, Cinemersia, which doubles as VR consulting firm. In collaboration with Samsung, Cinemersia invented quadraphonic sound control for virtual reality movies with the production of “MansLaughter.” Marlett is among those (literally) writing the script on how to shoot a virtual reality movie. He is teaming with First Draft, which develops and sells scriptwriting software programs, to create scripting templates for blocking scenes within a 360-degree plane for virtual reality movies. Maybe Cameron should take a workshop.

All kidding aside, there must be a steep learning curve to shooting live-action virtual reality movies. That’s why Oculus VR, for example, created Oculus Story Studio, an original animated virtual-reality film studio.

oculus-storystudio

Founded by veterans of Pixar studio, Oculus Story serves as a showcase for filmmakers interested in virtual reality movie-making.

One of the co-creators of Oculus Story, Eugene Chung, was apparently so inspired that he left Oculus and founded his own company, Penrose Studios. Penrose raised $8.5 million earlier this year in a second round of seed funding (the first round went undisclosed). Touted as the Pixar of virtual reality movies, Penrose Studios has released a couple of short films and recently released “Allumette,” about a girl selling magical matchsticks in a town floating in the clouds, according to a feature story in Techcrunch. Like Cinermersia, Penrose Studios sees itself at the forefront of writing the book, How to Make a Virtual Reality Movie 101.

Filming in virtual reality

In order to make a major motion picture in VR, we’re going to need a major VR camera.

An early entrant into the market was Palo Alto-based startup Jaunt VR, which we’ve featured a couple of times, including on our list of six hot virtual reality startups to watch. Backed by Walt Disney Company, among others, Jaunt VR produces what was marketed as the world’s professional camera for virtual reality content. Capable of capturing high-resolution, 360-degree images and videos, the Neo is also easy to use, sort of the point-and-shoot version of a VR camera. Editing software allows filmmakers to stitch together footage from multiple perspectives to help create the VR effect.

GoPro finally got into the act earlier this year when it released Odyssey, a 16-camera rig built with help from Google. The $15,000 VR camera, shaped a bit like a flying saucer, had a limited release to a number of VR production companies, including WEVR, VRSE, Specular Theory, Surreal, and Two Bit Circus, according to a story on The Verge. Owners of the Odyssey will have access to Google’s servers, which automatically processes and stitches the VR footage.

For the serious Hollywood filmmaker, there is Nokia’s OZO, a sleek-looking VR camera that eschews the rig design for a self-contained, ball-shaped video camera to capture stereoscopic 3D through eight synchronized, optical image sensors and spatial audio with eight microphones. While content created by OZO can be used on any commercial VR headset, you had better bring some Cameron-esque money with you. The OZO retails for $60,000 and appears to be the first VR camera for making feature-length virtual reality movies.

GoPro Odyssey

GoPro Odyssey

Coming to a virtual reality theater near you

If virtual reality movies are really the next big thing, is it time to sell your shares in Cinemark Sharings and all the rest? After all, what would be the point of going to the multiplex cinema anymore, other than to buy a $10 bag of popcorn?

Of course, movie theaters have found a way to survive despite competition from online streaming, home theater systems and libraries. They modernized for one thing. Since 2009, many theaters have upgraded to digital, IMAX and 3-D screens, according to Fulcrum Inquiry, a financial and economics consulting firm.  In 2012, the United States and Canada combined had more than 21,000 digital theaters and 14,000 digital 3-D theaters, compared to approximately 6,000 analog screens.

If today’s theater giants don’t adapt, they might go extinct (Blockbuster, anybody?), to be replaced in the evolutionary chain of events by nimbler, more adaptable companies. Like Dutch company Samhoud Media, which opened its first VR Cinema earlier this year in Amsterdam. Moviegoers pay €12.50 for 30 minutes of VR entertainment in four different theme categories, including horror and documentary. The price includes use of a headset and swivel chair. Drinks from the swank VR Cinema bar not included.

Samhoud Media, founded by Jip Samhouse, plans to open additional outlets around Europe. More interestingly, the company just inked a deal with Chinese media giant, Gome Group, to provide virtual reality movie programming to 100 cinemas in China, according to a story on the website resonate.

With a growing middle class in China estimated by Forbes to be in the neighborhood of 200 million people, that’s a lot of popcorn.

The reality, of course, is that virtual reality movies will remain niche for the foreseeable future, though there is money to be had now. For example: Formed in 2016, Virtual Reality Venture Capital Alliance involves 36 of the top VR investors in the world. VRVCA has about $15 billion in deployable capital to spend. Its first investment meeting will be held in Beijing in February 2017.

Stay tuned to find out if VR entertainment will be a blockbuster or a bust someday.

Want to get started with Virtual Reality? The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift are the two best headsets right now. Right now HTC is offering $200 off their headset which comes with two controllers, a whole bunch of accessories, $50 gift card for Steam (content and games), and some free content to blow your mind right out of the box like Everest VR and Star Trek. Maybe the best part is watching how your friends and family react when they try it for the first time! Click here to pick one up.

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