Virtual and augmented reality are big business – but will we get close to something like ‘Ready Player One’?

Both industries offer the promise of much for the big screen and beyond, with big bets being placed

Elizabeth Segal
in Los Angeles
Sunday 25 March 2018 17:34
Comments
Ready Player One trailer released

Fans of Ernest Cline’s best-selling Ready Player One have waited patiently for someone to adapt the video game adventure story, which melds a futuristic Oklahoma City with the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) of the so-called Oasis, for the big screen.

Steven Spielberg’s effort in adapting the 2011 book will reach cinemas this week, but in reality many aspects of Ready Player One’s VR and AR future are currently being developed at breakneck speed on the US’s West Coast, in what is a convenient marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Investment in both fields in the last year alone has been $1.8bn (£1.27bn). “Big companies are making big bets,” said Charlie Fink, former tech executive for Disney and AOL, and the author of Charlie Fink’s Metaverse, an AR-Enabled Guide to #VR & #AR.

For the uninitiated, VR is programmed into a headset for immersive experiences, while AR is a layover of information over the real world, using a smartphone or smartglasses, such as in the game Pokemon GO.

VR, long used in the gaming world, but forever considered a holy grail by many a Hollywood producer, has struggled with narrative issues, expensive headsets and production costs. Several minutes of VR screen time can cost upwards of $500,000 to $2m, and can be technically very involved to produce. That said, this year, several well-funded, high-profile VR production companies are finally gearing up for full-body-immersion VR “experiences” in cinemas, and in doing so, are testing the waters for the future of entertainment.

The Void’s “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire”, which recently opened in London and is tagged as a “hyper-reality” experience, is produced by LucasFilm Ltd, director George Lucas, and ILMxLAB, a unit of San Francisco’s post-production house, Industrial Light & Magic, which is creating new, immersive experiences. A key competitor, “Alien Zoo” by Dreamscape Immersive, recently completed a six-week “pop-up” test run at Los Angeles’ Westfield shopping mall.

Spielberg discusses Star Wars references in Ready Player One

Backed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, IMAX, AMC Theaters, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, Dreamscape Immersive’s 12-minute experience opened to rave reviews, with gamer site Media-Geeks.com writing, “The first exploratory adventure from Dreamscape Immersive may finally, gloriously, be the tipping point that turns VR into a viable form of entertainment.” Trade paper The Hollywood Reporter panted breathlessly, “Can VR save the mall?”

These VR worlds are, at the very least, breaking new creative ground when users wear haptic gloves, a headset and a backpack on-site. In “Alien Zoo”, “You get on a flying platform, and shuttle off” to an off-world menagerie, explained Dreamscape Immersive CEO Bruce Vaughn, a former Chief Creative Director of Disney’s Imagineering unit. “Once there, ‘elqui’ wander up. You literally reach out and interact with them, by petting these alien creatures,” Mr Vaughn said.

Tickets for the entire “Alien Zoo” run sold out in 24 hours, after which it was extended by two weeks. Obviously keen to talk up his product, Mr Vaughn said that the his company “basically got 100 per cent” of users saying they would recommend the experience, which cost $20 to $25, to a family member or friend. “I mean, you just don’t see those kinds of numbers. [For a movie], you’re happy if you get into the 70s – that’s a blockbuster!” he added.

While Mr Vaughn was tight-lipped about when Dreamscape Immersive would roll out its slate of six more experiences to other cinemas, he hinted that it might very well be this year, and that it might include cinemas in the UK’s Odeon chain, owed by investor AMC.

But while Dreamscape Immersive has already received two rounds of funding to the tune of approximately $42 million, Mr Fink is sceptical about cinema-based VR experiences. “What is the repeatability of ‘Alien Zoo’?” he asked. ”I don’t know if people will pay $20 twice. In a movie theatre, if no one goes during the week, they can make it up on a Friday or Saturday night, because they have 300 seats and one projectionist.” VR experiences can only do four to six people an hour. “So do the math,” Mr Fink added.

However, “Movies are dying,” claims Mr Fink, so Hollywood needs to keep spinning off more and more entertainment avenues. AR development is very much alive, at least by the look of the myriad of corporate presenters at “VR On The Lot”, the cutting-edge AR/VR conference held recently in Los Angeles.

But AR has not yet reached its own cultural tipping point. It may just be a matter of time – ARKit and ARCore development platforms were introduced last September on iPhone and Android phones and now guarantee a built-in audience of over 800 million – or it may not ever make it completely into the mainstream.

“You’re going to spend the majority of your life in AR!” roared one tech executive from the conference floor, as groups promised AR will improve one’s world as if by magic. An advert on the side of your morning milk carton or the side of a bus shelter on your way to work will come alive with your smartglasses or smartphone. Next, in your office, you’ll be able to amend Word documents and memos as they float in the air before you, Minority Report-style. Back at home, you could be chatting with a loved one in a different city, again via telepresence, which will render them sitting in your living room.

Other envelope-pushing applications at On The Lot included a media-rich, 3D rendering of the futures market, launched last year by the Wall Street Journal for traders and demo’d by its creator, Emblematic Group’s Nonny de la Peňa; Mike O’Gorman, a Cisco Systems engineer, described his company’s AR fire-response system, which will give responders virtual “floor plans and wi-fi data cached in the Cloud, to let them see hotspots and people in a burning building”.

Mr Fink predicts that “sport will lead the way for cinematic and AR reality”, adding that Intel was already working on capturing sports volumetrically. “You’ll be able to go to a bar, use tabletop AR, and project a [football] match. Over the players will float their names and stats, you’ll be able to make their images bigger or smaller.”

But, for now, VR and AR still exist mainly in games. And in big-budget movies about the future.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in