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Virtual reality (VR) was the talk of the town at Mobile World Congress (MWC) last month, and it has become increasingly clear that VR will be the hot technology trend of 2016. A great deal supports that assertion — Samsung and Six Flags are creating VR roller coasters, while seemingly every tech company is looking to claim a piece of the VR pie, including HTC, Facebook, Google, Intel, and maybe even Apple.
The latest industry to lend credence to the notion that VR will swallow the world is cinema. News emerged this week that a company based in the Netherlands is introducing what it touts as the first permanent virtual reality movie theater, with the aptly named VR Cinema opening for business in Amsterdam following a successful pop-up cinema tour of Europe last year. Further permanent outlets are planned for later this year in Berlin, London, Barcelona, and Paris.
So what exactly can you expect from a night out at the VR Cinema?
Well, as you’d perhaps expect, it deviates from the traditional cinema form, insofar as you’re not seated in a darkened room staring at the front. The room is packed with swivel chairs, each armed with a Samsung Gear VR headset and headphones.
Onlookers not party to the experience will see a bunch of people quite possibly facing in different directions, and each potentially watching different movies in different ways. It could be compared to a silent disco in some respects, insofar as everybody could have a different experience.
Open from Wednesday through Sunday, tickets for the VR Cinema cost €12.50 (around $13.70) a pop, and there are shows on the hour, with space for around 400 visitors each day. It’s worth noting that because these are VR movies, it’s not the latest blockbusters you’d normally see at your local multiplex — the company offers a package of VR films that last around 35 minutes in total, designed to demonstrate “the variety of ends to which VR can be used,” we’re told. Though there is scope for dishing out different experiences to each user, for now each visitor in each performance will see the same movies at roughly the same time.
Calling it a cinema kinda does a disservice to the concept of a cinema. Movie theaters are usually social experiences — it’s a night out where everyone watches the same thing for two hours and then discusses the good and the bad of the story or acting afterwards. With the VR Cinema, it feels like the talking point is designed to be more about the technology and the experience, rather than the movie.
And that is a key point. There is nothing particularly unique about a VR cinema itself that can’t be replicated in your bedroom, except most people don’t have their own VR equipment and, well, virtual reality is still a fledgling medium that requires time to infiltrate the mainstream. So in effect, you’re paying to hire the equipment for a short period of time, with experts on hand to help you figure out the technology.
It’s clearer than ever that VR is here, it’s not a gimmick, and 2016 could prove to be a huge breakout year for the medium. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are betting big on VR, and that’s difficult to ignore. But it is still early days, where applications and use-cases outside of gaming are being trialed and tested in a number of different ways.
“VR is the next platform, where anyone can create and experience anything they want,” Zuckerberg said during a speech at MWC. “Right now, it is mostly used for gaming. But that’s evolving, and that’s why Facebook is investing so much in VR, so we can deliver these new social experiences. VR is going to be the next social platform.”
Interestingly, Zuck highlighted a number of scenarios outside of gaming where VR could become the norm. “Imagine being able to sit in front of a campfire and hang out with friends anytime you want,” he continued, “or being able to watch a movie in a private theater with your friends anytime you want.”
That gives a big hint as to how VR may eventually be used in the movie realm — rather than everybody traveling to one place to strap a headset to their face, they simply do so at home in their own private abode. The “social” aspect comes when buddies elect to watch the same thing at the same time — either in the same room or remotely.
“When the first cinematic show took place at the end of the 19th century, nobody could imagine that film would grow into one of today’s most important ways of communication and entertainment,” VR Cinema founder Jip Samhoud told VentureBeat. “I predict that virtual reality has the same future in the offing.
“We did some pop-up editions in different cities and countries earlier, and every edition was such a huge success that we decided to open a permanent cinema where visitors can always enjoy and experience the latest VR movies,” he added. “For the other cities, we’re looking for the right and best spots to open the cinema. The location for Berlin is almost confirmed.”
The technology is here already — now it’s just a matter of testing the water to see how much demand there is for mass-market VR experiences.
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