FILM

Im­mer­sive vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences could well be the fu­ture of cin­ema, writes Mathew Scott

Prestige Hong Kong - - CONTENTS -

Vir­tual re­al­ity

THE CUTE LIT­TLE ALIEN seems doomed.

It’s about five min­utes into my first vir­tual-re­al­ity (VR) ex­pe­ri­ence and so far I’ve twice walked into a (real) glass wall with my head­set on. I’ve also been talk­ing in­ces­santly to my­self and to a help­ful VR trainer who has strangely fallen silent as I try to work out how to flick a switch that will save this lit­tle crea­ture’s life.

And that’s why it seems like he doesn’t stand a chance. My co­or­di­na­tion has failed me as I turn to try to help and I hit the (real) wall again – and swear.

For­tu­nately, out of the blue, an­other alien ap­pears and takes con­trol, throw­ing me a look, and what I can only take to be the in­ter­plan­e­tary ver­sion of, “WTF!” He flicks the switch on the vir­tual wall in front of me and he makes sure his lit­tle mate sur­vives for an­other screen­ing.

The head­set and hand con­trols are re­moved. The VR trainer is now laugh­ing – loudly – and I re­treat to the nearby cof­fee lounge to take stock of the whole VR revo­lu­tion.

Stop wait­ing. It’s al­ready ar­rived. The Bu­san In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val (BIFF) re­cently hosted what was billed as the largest pro­gramme of VR pro­duc­tions yet as­sem­bled in Asia – 36 fea­ture films, doc­u­men­taries and an­i­ma­tions.

Step in­side, pull on a head­set and you can ei­ther im­merse your­self in­side the likes of doc­u­men­tary Un­der a Cracked Sky – which takes you un­der Antarc­tic seas – or ex­pe­ri­ence pro­duc­tions such as As­ter­oid! that place the viewer in­side an

an­i­mated uni­verse in which you can help save the life of a cute lit­tle alien – or at least try to, de­pend­ing on your wits and your dex­ter­ity.

There are pan­els of VR-in­dus­try ex­perts on hand to chart the fu­ture of an in­dus­try that es­ti­mates sug­gest will be worth around US$75 bil­lion by 2021.

And the quote that cap­tured every­one’s imag­i­na­tion came from direc­tor Jérôme Blan­quet, whose lat­est VR pro­duc­tion, Al­ter­ation, won an award at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val last April.

“VR is like a dream,” he says. “You can walk, you can fly, you can do any­thing.”

But be­fore we get to what VR is ac­tu­ally of­fer­ing, let’s dig up a few of the facts. What sets the ex­pe­ri­ence apart from other re­cent and much-pub­li­cised de­vel­op­ments in film – such as 3D and 4D – is that it places a head­set and hand­sets on view­ers and thereby fully im­merses them in an imag­i­nary en­vi­ron­ment. The sights and sounds you wit­ness and that you can en­gage with lift you out of your seat and make you feel as if you’re part of the show.

It’s tech­nol­ogy that first started to take root in video games, through de­vices such as the VR con­sole built for the Xbox, but ap­pli­ca­tions are now be­ing found in more tra­di­tional forms of me­dia, such as film.

The rush to get on board is gath­er­ing mo­men­tum, with the likes of the Imax chain open­ing its first VR cin­ema in Los An­ge­les in early 2017.

VR has lit up the world’s top film fes­ti­vals, also, dur­ing the past 12 months, thanks to the likes of Blan­quet’s Al­ter­ation, which also screened at the pres­ti­gious Venice Film

Fes­ti­val. Mean­while, the Cannes fes­ti­val last year fea­tured Os­car-win­ner Ale­jan­dro G Iñàr­ritu’s Meat and Sand, the first time a VR pro­duc­tion had screened at that event in its 70year his­tory.

The big corps are lin­ing up, with new head­sets from Face­book and Mi­crosoft aimed at tak­ing the tech­nol­ogy main­stream, while en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try heavy­weights Steven Spiel­berg, 21st Cen­tury Fox and Metro-Gold­wyn-Mayer are be­hind the­atre chain AMC En­ter­tain­ment’s new vir­tual-re­al­ity mul­ti­plexes, de­signed to al­low view­ers to in­ter­act with other peo­ple’s avatars while they ex­plore vir­tual worlds.

In­ter­ac­tion – or the abil­ity to share the VR ex­pe­ri­ence – re­mains the grey area. At present there’s a dis­tinc­tive “com­puter game” feel to much of the work that’s cur­rently be­ing pro­duced, and that’s just how I feel as I bat­tle to save the alien’s life – “in” the ex­pe­ri­ence, for sure, but not “of” it.

“We need to find some emo­tion and how to en­gage the viewer in that,” says film­maker Che Min Hyuk, a pro­ducer at the VR Lab run by Korean me­dia-in­dus­try gi­ants CJ, which is ex­pect­ing to start rolling out VR pro­duc­tions this year. Che pre­vi­ously worked with mo­bile in­ter­ac­tive cin­ema for smart­phone users and then in 3D, but said he wanted to de­velop plat­forms that were more im­mer­sive.

“Every­one thought 3D might be the big thing in cin­ema, but that tech­nol­ogy has its lim­i­ta­tions,” says Che. “As film­mak­ers with VR we still don’t re­ally know how far it will take us and the au­di­ence.”

Korean-Amer­i­can film­maker Eu­gene Chung, from the San Fran­cisco-based Pen­rose Stu­dios, has two shorts – Al­lumette and Ar­den’s Wake: The Pro­logue

– screen­ing as part of the VR pro­gramme in Bu­san, with the lat­ter ar­riv­ing fresh from win­ning the best VR award at the Venice fes­ti­val last Septem­ber.

“We’re re­ally build­ing the fu­ture,” says Chung. “When you com­pare it to the adop­tion of things in the past 100 years, such as ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and con­sole games, the num­bers look fine for VR. Face­book and Ap­ple are pour­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into this in­dus­try and these hard­ware de­vel­op­ments are key, but it will all come down to con­tent – and we’re ex­cited by the way that’s de­vel­op­ing.”

Chung says he be­lieves VR will shift the way we per­ceive vis­ual and au­dio art. “We think the im­pact of this medium is go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful,” he says, while ad­mit­ting that it would be a voy­age into the un­known in terms of so­cial im­pact.

One of the most im­por­tant things about cin­ema – and the cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence – is that it’s shared. En­ter a cin­ema, and you be­come part of a wider com­mu­nity. When video games first came out, a prob­lem ap­peared with peo­ple with­draw­ing into their own worlds and not be­ing able to cope with the real one.

“There’s a first space­ship fac­tor [with VR],” says Chung. “When video games came out I think we as a so­ci­ety un­der­es­ti­mated their im­pact, so there are def­i­nitely things we need to look out for in VR in the com­ing years.”

“VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY IS LIKE A DREAM. YOU CAN WALK. YOU CAN FLY. YOU CAN DO ANY­THING” Jérôme Blan­quet Direc­tor of the VR pro­duc­tion Al­ter­ation

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