The trials and tribulations of VR cinema
It seems next year will be the big one for virtual reality. HTC's Valve-sponsored Vive is hitting the shops right at the end of 2015 with the Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus getting released early on in 2016.
But what does that mean for your home cinema - are movies in VR a real possibility?
Well, yes they are but it's far from simple. So, what then are the issues that might surround movies in VR?
The technology is still quite limited
One of the things you have to remember about VR movies is that to make a film in 360 degrees, you need to shoot in 360 degrees. The problems with that specifically are explored in a moment, but to record video in that way is a challenge with current cameras.
Any real video shot for 360 degrees looks quite low resolution today. You can see this with the demo clips on something like Gear VR.
What they lack in resolution though, they make up for in spectacle. Being able to look around in full motion video is really very cool.
With camera sensors evolving all the time it probably won't be long before we shoot in 8K and can use that to create much better 360 degree video.
Shooting in 360 degrees is hard
To make a 360 degree movie, a truly VR experience, you need to shoot all around in 360 degrees, but also above and below the traditional camera position. This makes things incredibly hard for any movie. More than likely you'll need to do several takes to get a scene where people can look around without seeing a piece of equipment, or an extra picking their nose.
If you've ever seen how a movie is made then you'll know the process couldn't be less suitable for 360 degree presentation if it tried. A talking head shot, where two actors are chatting on camera, for example, might make for a good VR viewing experience but in movies these scenes are usually shot with one or two cameras.
Person A acts their part of the scene, from start to finish. Then the camera positions are changed and person B shoots all their lines in the scene. After editing, these two look like they were shot at the same time, but they might not even have been shot on the same day.
That works for normal movies, but making that for VR would be a challenge.
It would be more like theatre. Not impossible from an actor's point-of-view, but technically tricky. How do you hide all of the equipment needed to make a movie?
It's a tough one. Of course, you could still shoot both parts separately and stitch them together later, but that will make for a complicated and expensive process.
Movie directors are paid to tell a story
The big problem with taking any movie, and turning it into a VR extravaganza is that directors have a vision. Try telling David Fincher that you're going to need him to shoot a 360 degree film so the slack-jawed public can have a look around the set when they should be focusing on the actors, and he'll have some sort of fit.
That's not to say that movies can't have a big part in VR, but those movies will need to be carefully considered and scripted with that subject in mind. In the past, we've seen the sort of nonsense that comes out of new technology.
DVD for example promised seamless branching, which would allow us to select different outcomes to on-screen events. There's a really good reason all movies aren't now interactive - it's just not of interest to anyone.
You can't force technology on movies, we've seen that with 3D, and that had the buy-in from lots of high-profile directors. The fact is, 3D is a fraction of the effort of VR, and it still caused endless problems and didn't gain any public traction.
There are alternatives to 360-degree movie-making...
There's an interesting middle-ground
Rather than making a fully immersive, 360 degree movie there's another solution that works surprisingly well: you simply watch movies on your VR device as you would with a TV.
There are lots of advantages to this. You get a massive picture that dominates your vision, you can have excellent 3D, if you're interested in that, and you can even select how large you want the film to appear in front of you.
Want the sensation of a massive IMAX screen? No problem, you'll just have to look around a bit more.
There's also the possibility of hooking up with your other VR-toting buddies in a virtual cinema environment too. VR is such an isolating technology having something to combat this, especially in what has traditionally been a relatively social, shared activity, could be a very good thing.
Though the first person to mod in support for throwable popcorn might not be that popular...
New audio technology coming to phones - that we have seen, thanks to Qualcomm - shows just how good surround sound is going to get with headphones soon. It appears likely that within a few years we'll be having a movie experience at home that's better than any cinema, and with loads of great advantages over a regular TV.
Oculus VR has the solution
The best hope for VR movies comes, unsurprisingly, from Oculus itself. It has set up a movie studio called "Story Studio". It has even produced a film called Lost, which has already been shown - and was well-liked - and it has plans for more movies this year and next.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ws0SOjNboqc
These are animated features, so can be rendered on the fly as you're watching them.
This means there's no lack of resolution, they can be rendered at the full display resolution, giving amazing quality. It also means you can have things interact with you while you watch.
Perhaps not a fully immersive experience, but a way to guide you to look at certain things.
If Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and Vive sell, then this could be a boon industry. It won't be long before big names want to be involved, and it's this that is where VR entertainment will start.
VR is likely to come with some high costs
For gaming we already know that you need a top-end PC to power Oculus Rift. Only Nvidia and AMD's highest-powered GPUs will be fast enough and you need a lot RAM and CPU power too.
The good news is that VR movies will likely need less power.
Of course that will depend enormously on how they work. If you want good quality, we're still talking about displaying a lot of pixels and your hardware will need to be able to decode very high resolution video, which has its own challenges. Perhaps less than games, but it's still going to need some power to work well.
So, what's the future for VR home entertainment?
Well, games are good to go. We've seen them work, and they're amazing. VR animation is shaping up too. Reports by those who have seen Lost from Oculus' Story Studio are good.
It's an exciting and immersive experience and it will bring something new to entertainment.
If you're hoping that all movies will be shot in 360 degrees, then you're in for a disappointment. The issues here are huge. It's technically difficult, it will be hard to get existing directors to consider it and it won't actually add much to a normal movie experience.
Perhaps we'll see something of a compromise.
Perhaps movies shot in IMAX will allow us to look around the frame slightly, and give us more control. We might see more of the sort of thing that Samsung's Gear VR had with the demo clip from The Maze Runner giving us an image that wrapped around us, for a more immersive feel.
One thing's for sure, VR is exciting and will hopefully be a big part of entertainment over the coming years.
We probably won't be wearing VR headsets for movie night, but we may well have new experiences with VR content that runs in a linear manner, as movies do. They will, however, need to be quite different to traditional films to really work.