Through a Headset Darkly: The Advent of Virtual Reality Cinema

There’s no place I’d rather be than in a movie theater. Every room is a portal to another world. Go to England if you must. Round-trip tickets are on sale now for $1,500! Me? I’ll spend $10 for the glowing screen that takes me wherever the imagination can go.

I like to get there early. No one’s taking my spot in the middle. Concessions are a must, of course. Veteran’s secret: Get the kid’s combo. They’ll never ask you where your kid is, even if it’s midnight, and you’ll save a fortune. With a little preparation, you’ll be right where you want to be — nestled between two strangers, ready to enjoy the show.

Everyone likes to complain about annoying patrons, but at the end of the day it’s the strangers that give movie theaters their magic. There’ll always be a low-key charm in watching movies in your boxers, but nothing beats the energy of a sold-out show. Movies were designed to be shared experiences. Hearing the laughs and screams and gasps of those around us enhances the journey tenfold. We’re all in this boat together, and no one knows where it’ll land.

That’s precisely why the latest Star Wars news stopped me dead in my tracks. First the good: There’s a Darth Vader spinoff movie in the works. Now the bad: It will be made exclusively for a virtual reality cinema experience. Suddenly I saw the future of movies, and I was terrified. This film has the potential to change everything. If it makes a ton of money (and who doesn’t think it will?), the entire industry could follow suit. And if that happens, the movie theater experience as we know it could be lost for good.

The Next Frontier

Movie theaters have seen a lot of changes over the years. Some developments have been welcome. Who didn’t cry tears of joy when stadium seating was announced?! (Okay, maybe that was only a moment for the vertically challenged.) Some were misguided fads. (History hasn’t been kind to smell-o-vision.) And still others were stepping stones.

I’d put 3D and D-Box technology in the final category. Both are great innovations, but they’re lacking the very thing virtual reality hopes to fulfill – a fully 4-dimensional film experience. 3D has its moments, but the glasses have never been able to cement the illusion. D-Box is a fun ride with the chair moving and vibrating in sync with the film, but there’s still an audience and screen pulling us back to earth.

Virtual reality films will take this technology to its logical conclusion. For the first time we’ll actually feel like we’re inside the movie. We’ll be able to look in front, to the side, and behind. We’ll be able to touch and interact with the objects around us. We’ll be able to influence the story by becoming another character in the narrative.

And don’t kid yourself – this is no fad. Virtual reality is here to stay. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are just the beginning. More headsets are on the way at increasingly affordable prices. New games and concepts are in the works. The possibilities are endless. And if Pokémon GO is any indication, we’re primed and ready for virtual environments.

No “I” in Team

So what does this mean for movies? On the one hand, I’m excited. Part of the reason I’ve been so frustrated with 3D technology is I actually want the experience of being sucked into the screen, and the glasses have fallen short every time. Virtual reality will be different. I can’t wait to not just watch a movie, but be inside the movie. This isn’t just for event films either. I want to be on the edge of the sofa as a couple pours out their hearts to each other. I want to walk over to their bookcase and look through a photo album. That’s the promise of virtual reality films – an enhanced experience that should add, not detract, from the emotional nuance.

But notice all the “I” statements in my wishlist. The benefits of virtual reality ruin what I love most about the movie theater experience. The community element is shattered. Everyone will now be watching their own movie in their own way. No more shared emotion. No more communal energy. Films will now be individual experiences that happen to take place alongside other people.

Check out the VR theater that’s already operational in the Netherlands. They’re not playing Hollywood movies yet, but they’re equipped for them. The rooms in the theater are filled with individual chairs, headsets, and headphones. Seeing pictures of the people swivel around as they interact with their headsets is downright creepy. Everyone is together…but they’re not. Does that remind you of anything?

The Golden Calf

Technology is the golden calf of our age. We believe technology will solve our problems, cure our diseases, usher in peace, and save our souls. We’ve gone all in. And to be sure, technology has brought us farther as a society than we ever thought possible. We can get in touch with people instantly.  We have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. We’ve made both time-saving and life-saving advances across all fields and disciplines. But alongside the benefits come unintended consequences.

One of the biggest consequences is the way technology has harmed relationships. Our devices are elegant and powerful. They command and we obey. The fact that I would rather whip out my phone than talk to my kids when I get home pains me. When I feel a vibration in my pocket, I’m fast on the draw. Sometimes I feel the vibration when my phone isn’t even there.

Perhaps even worse is the illusion of intimacy that technology creates. With the advance of social media, we feel closer to friends and family than ever before. But what is the depth of our interactions?  Is scrolling through a Facebook newsfeed connecting with people? Is commenting on a post an intimate encounter? In the words of Arcade Fire, “We’re so connected, but are we even friends?” The essentials of meaningful communication are missing. The eye contact. The subtleties. The context. We may be talking more, but we’re communicating less.

Do you know who the owner of Oculus Rift is? Facebook. That’s right — Mark Zuckerberg and Co. have acquired one of the leading virtual reality headsets on the market. The thought should send chills down your spine. Imagine a future where you don’t just go on Facebook, you live in Facebook. Facebook will soon be a virtual world where we meet up with friends in a virtual bar, pick up articles from a virtual newsstand, and watch clips of our friends in a virtual theater — all from the comfort of our living rooms. Homes of the future will be just like the virtual reality movie theater in the Netherlands: Mom, Dad, and the kids all with headsets on waving their arms in the air. Together…but not.

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg is shooting a new movie this year for release in 2018 called Ready Player One. The movie is an adaptation of a novel released in 2011 about a dystopian future where virtual reality has taken over the world. Everyone is plugged into a virtual society called the OASIS while the real world crumbles all around them.

This premise seems all too prophetic for our times. The jury’s out on whether Spielberg will go meta and use the same VR technology as the Darth Vader spinoff. Either way, it should be a chilling indictment of where we’re headed. We already look to technology for escape from our real lives. This will only be amplified as VR headsets become more affordable and commonplace. IMAX has announced plans to open 6 virtual reality theaters this year. As the Darth Vader movie approaches, theater chains everywhere will have to jump on board.

VR movie theaters are merely one component of the virtual reality takeover, but they provide a microcosm of what will be lost in the transition. No longer will we attend theaters for a communal movie experience. Instead, movie theaters will join the long list of interpersonal casualties where we sit next to each other under the illusion of community while being lost in our own private universe.

How should Christians respond to this brave new world? We’ll have to wait and see when it gets here. I hope my fears prove unfounded. This is exciting technology that could be used in powerful ways. I hope it makes movies better, not worse. I hope it brings people closer, not farther apart.  Only time will tell. For now, all we know is this: virtual reality is coming to a theater near you. Are you ready?