AUSTIN, TEXAS - One day you may go to a movie theater where instead of watching a film on a screen, you enter the scene and watch the action unfold all around you. That is the promise of new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) and 360-degree video. Online streaming sites like YouTube and Vimeo already offer short VR films made by amateurs as well as professionals.

You can watch them with expensive headsets, but many people use their smart phones tucked into a cardboard viewer that can be purchased from Google for only $15. So far, most of the films are either computer animations or scenes featuring experiences like a roller coaster ride.

At South by Southwest (SWSX) in Austin, Texas, last month, people donned headsets to see part of a VR comedic gangster film shot in Baltimore. The producers of “Career Opportunities in Organized Crime” claim it is the first full-length feature film made in 360-degree Virtual Reality.

To cover for the crew being visible when a viewer turns around away from the main action, they made it a mockumentary, a fake documentary, in which the making of the film is part of the story.

Virtual Reality Tourism

YouVisit is a company that produces virtual-reality movies that allow people to travel to exotic places around the world without ever leaving home. Director of Marketing Suzanne Sanders says these films can be used to promote trips by giving people a sample of what it would be like or they can provide a virtual trip for those who are unable to physically travel.

Suzanne Sanders (VOA/G. Flakus).
Suzanne Sanders (VOA/G. Flakus).

She said, “It is an incredibly valuable tool for children or elderly or anyone who is not able to travel to a destination and experience it, whether it is a helicopter tour over Manhattan or a cruise, just to escape for a moment.”

The VR headsets used to take such escapes have been part of the computer gaming world for some time, but many people cannot use these devices without experiencing sea sickness or nausea.

Theater of the future

An alternative is offered by companies using special screens to dazzle audiences seated comfortably in front of them. At SXSW, the Japanese NHK Media Technology Company demonstrated an 8K resolution 3-D film utilizing 24 speakers set up all around the room. Images jumped out of the screen in sharp detail as music enveloped the audience. But company spokesmen said such an apparatus costs half a million dollars to set up, making it unrealistic for all but specialty theaters.

Just down the hall from that demonstration was a much more accessible immersive experience provided by the company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. They had a dome set up at an angle to the floor with a film projected inside. Viewers lay back in comfortable seats inside the dome to watch the images float in front of them with a 180-degree view.

Nitai Flick (VOA/G. Flakus).
Nitai Flick of (VOA/G. Flakus).

The company’s Chief Technology Officer, Nitai Flick, told VOA this offers a number of advantages over headsets.

“We can display content in a similar format, where we can fill your field of view even more than a headset,” he said. “We can also do 3-D, however, it is more of a guided experience than an interactive experience, so it works well for story telling.”

That, of course, could make it more interesting to filmmakers since it would allow them to direct audience attention with minimal distractions elsewhere on the screen. Flick says a number of production companies are already making content for the dome screens.

“We see this as sort of the theater of the future,” he said, “the way of displaying content in a more capturing, immersive way.”

No one knows how these technologies will change the movie business in the future, and theater owners will be reluctant to invest a lot of money in devices that may turn out to be a short-term fad.

But the movie business is also facing competition from home theater systems, online streaming films and widespread piracy of their own products. If theaters can offer an amazing experience that is hard to duplicate at home, the future of the business could be much brighter.