Virtual reality will put you in movies

Film festival programmer: "The visceral impact of the format is simply too powerful to not to want to touch."

Story highlights

  • Virtual reality may be the next big innovation in movies
  • At the Sundance festival, an experimental program is dominated by virtual reality
  • Fox Searchlight is among the major studios giving it a try

(CNN)Always wanted to be in the movies? You may get a chance soon, thanks to the burgeoning world of virtual reality and a film industry keen on exploring it.

Major movie studios like Fox Searchlight, the influential Sundance Film Festival and Oculus, Facebook's $2 billion bet on the future of virtual reality, are just some of the players working to make you believe you're fighting in the Battle of the Five Armies or shooting through space with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
From Technicolor to surround sound to 3-D to high projector frame rates, the history of film has been built on technology designed to make audiences feel more a part of the movie they're watching. In virtual reality, which uses 360-degree computer simulations to create the illusion of reality, some think they've found the greatest leap yet in that direction.
    "The visceral impact of the format is simply too powerful to not to want to touch," said Shari Frilot, senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival.
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    Frilot is curator of New Frontier, an initiative at Sundance devoted to supporting filmmakers who are pushing the boundaries of art and technology.
    Of New Frontier's 13 installations at next month's festival, nine will feature virtual reality. They'll range from "Kaiju Fury," a feature that puts the viewer in a city being attacked by monsters, to "Project Syria," which will explore the potential for VR in documentary storytelling.
    "I think the show this year speaks powerfully to how VR is being embraced by big studios and independent filmmakers and artists alike," Frilot said.
    One of those big studios is Fox Searchlight. "Wild," starring Reese Witherspoon and in theaters now, has been developed into a three-minute virtual experience in which the viewer joins Witherspoon's character hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
    That demo, developed along with Oculus and Samsung, will be shown this month at both Sundance and the International CES consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas.
    HBO partnered with Oculus this year on a similar short "experience" promoting "Game of Thrones," in which the viewer is put into the shoes of a Night's Watch member facing an enemy attack.
    It's a new frontier for Oculus, which set out to make its Rift headset a tool for video games. Now, the company seeks to change everything about how we watch movies.
    "At some point, VR is going to eliminate the need to go to a physical place and see a big screen," Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said. "It can be even richer than the IMAX experience in a theater, because it can be 360 and all around you."
    Of course, that sort of mass-market shift isn't going to happen overnight. For one thing, Oculus and other major virtual-reality players like Sony's Project Morpheus aren't even on store shelves. Once they are, they'll have to avoid the curse of other failed "next big things," like 3-D televisions.
    But Frilot, and others like her, say it could happen.
    "Only time will tell how consumers will take to wearing goggles to access their visual entertainment," she said. "But if adaptation looks anything like the way consumers took to wearing earbuds to listen to music, or Bluetooth devices to communicate on their phones, it becomes clear how very powerful a movement on our media landscape virtual reality can become."