Moving Movies in Virtual Reality

About a year ago I saw this video about the beginnings of new kinds of filmmaking in virtual reality. This is something that had never occurred to me before but seemed like a really cool perspective: instead of watching a movie on a screen, you are immersed in the movie.

There are all kinds of exciting prospects brought by movies in VR: what does it mean to be a “viewer” of a VR movie? is the viewer essentially the camera? what role does a director have in shaping that viewer-as-camera experience? does the viewer have control of their point of view during the movie?

But there’s one thing I never hear discussed and that’s the role of the body in VR movies.

Watching a movie today requires sitting for two or more hours, especially if multiple people are watching. As I wrote about previously, moving is a big deal and being stationary for hours long is not healthy. But the medium of film basically demands it. The movie plays start to finish with no letting up (with no intermission for you to get up and stretch your legs (unless you’re watching 2001: A Space Odyssey), unlike most theatrical plays). The director-controlled camera point of view means as a viewer, you only have a stationary perspective on the film and you can’t move that around.

The easy thing, the default thing even, to do in virtual reality moviemaking is probably to keep things largely how they are today. Viewers are seated for the duration of the film, but maybe they can control it with handheld remotes. A bunch of people plopped down on couches with screens glued to their faces for hours at a time.

But there’s no reason why this has to be the case. VR is a new medium which sheds many of the constraints of the 2D-on-screen, body-destroying movies we’re used to. VR movies can incorporate the body, can require the body, and have the viewer be an active, moving participant in the movie, instead of a passive onlooker, seated for hours.

(PS: look at where you watch movies in your home. I bet that space would be a little dangerous if you suddenly strapped goggles on and ran around in it for two hours, right? I think “VR” should be a transitional technology, kind of like how we started with black and white photography: it’s a great start, but we should strive for better. Likewise, VR is a blinder, and not just for your eyes: your other senses, like touch and smell, don’t really get to play at all; you end up waving your arms in the air with no sense of physicality. We should treat VR like the obviously transitional technology that it is, and demand dynamic environments that incorporate more of the body and its senses.)

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