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Move over 3D movies, here comes virtual reality

Attendees wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets at the 2014 Comic-Con convention in San Diego. Facebook could be working on a strategy to make these VR headsets part of the Hollywood blockbuster experience. (Sandy Huffaker/Reuters)
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Virtual reality could soon become the next big thing in Hollywood, taking over from 3D and IMAX and and all the other technologies big Hollywood studios embrace to create more immersive experiences for moviegoers. By putting on a virtual reality headset, fans would hypothetically be able to interact with scenes or characters within the film. Of course, that’s just speculation, but recent reports suggest that Facebook is now going after Hollywood studios and directors, asking them to create “Oculus Experiences” specifically for its virtual reality device, the Oculus Rift.

And there have already been signs that Hollywood directors might be receptive to the idea. At this summer’s Comic-Con in San Diego, there were “Drift with the Rift” promotions for three different projects — “X-Men,” “Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Fans could strap on an Oculus Rift and experience what it felt like to be subsumed in a virtual reality experience.

You could have, for example, pretended you were a pilot of one of the massive 250-foot-high Jaeger robots in “Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot,” while participating in a highly immersive combat experience dreamed up by Guillermo del Toro:

Or, you could have experienced a scene with the Headless Horseman or Ichabod Crane from “Sleepy Hollow.”

Or, if you were a fan of “X-Men,” you could have experienced a three-minute, virtual reality presentation involving Professor X and Mystique.

All of these experiences point to what’s really extraordinary about the future of virtual reality for Hollywood filmmakers – fans become part of the storytelling experience when real-world actions are transformed into actions in virtual reality. If 3D film technology was designed to make the action bigger and more real, then virtual reality is the next logical iteration: You are interacting with characters and changing plot lines and experiencing a physical sensation that your mind registers as being “real.”

For now, virtual reality is not yet ready for its Hollywood debut. The current talk is of developing companion shorts for feature-length films (the way Guillermo del Toro did with “Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot”), and then of creating other types of shorter-form entertainment content specifically for the Oculus Rift. You can think of these first steps mostly as a marketing strategy to sell more movie tickets – sort of like those “alternative endings” or “blooper reels” or other “bonus” content that Hollywood studios used to sell consumers DVDs.

But it’s easy to see where the Oculus Rift could go from here. Virtual reality could change the moviegoer experience entirely. The current model assumes that you need a theater to view the film, and that films are only available at certain times of the day. The virtual reality model assumes that your head is the theater, and that the experience is on-demand. You could theoretically stream a movie to an Oculus Rift device at any time, getting a straight-from-the-studio experience, without needing to leave your couch.

In short, the Oculus Rift could be a big leap forward in long-form video storytelling experiences.

Maybe the whole business model for Hollywood shifts. Instead of, say, packing 100 people into a dark theater every three hours at a multiplex four times a day, maybe the new business model is more of a pure on-demand model, with thousands of people every hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Do the math and you can see why Facebook may be pursuing this concept. Facebook would get people to buy the Oculus Rift device and then follow up with a steady stream of video content offerings. The Rift would transform from a pure gaming device into a video entertainment device.

That sounds great, the only problem is, the movie industry has played this game before, first with Dolby and IMAX and then with 3D. Technology starts off changing the theater experience and then becomes more of a marketing gimmick, a way for Hollywood studios to crank up ticket prices or turn out sub-par fare with lots of special effects. 3D films are still fun, but the early allure of watching these 3D films has dissipated.

At the end of the day, would you really want your entire entertainment slate to be packed full of “X-Men” and “Pacific Rim” blockbusters at the expense of quirky indie films and documentaries that don’t feature lots of Hollywood-style special effects? (Although, admittedly, it’s easy to imagine R-rated scenarios for how virtual reality might be used to transform even the most innocent romantic comedy into something you might not want to take your kids to.).

But take a look at the broader tech zeitgeist. Hollywood has already shifted our behaviors, convincing us to a pay a premium ticket price for a 3D film and spend the better part of two hours wearing cheap, plastic 3D glasses. The consumer technology industry has already conditioned us to buy gaming devices for entertainment experiences at home. And Netflix and iTunes have conditioned us to buy movies on-demand. From this perspective, the Oculus Rift experience fits in perfectly with the current technological zeitgeist. Soon the multiplex theater — not just those cheap, flimsy 3D glasses — could be a relic of Hollywood’s cinematic past.