Groundbreaking cinematic experiences are nothing new at the world’s biggest film festivals, and technological innovation continues to thrill audiences across the globe. In recent years, virtual reality has become a major player in the many filmgoers’ experience, popping up in many forms at Cannes, Sundance, and Tribeca.

Thanks in part to the medium’s success at those top-tier festivals, virtual reality is set to alter the film industry in numerous ways, changing how we view and share movies both at home and at the cinema. VR may also bring in more revenue to the $43 billion film industry. Here’s what’s in store for the future of VR films and interactive experiences.

The Bright Future of VR in Film

For more than a decade, a tech-oriented program called New Frontier has been a part of the Sundance Film Festival. The section showcases a wide selection of VR, AR, and mixed reality films using the latest technology. In 2019, the VR company Oculus premiered “The Under Presents,” an immersive theater experience that featured human actors in front of a live audience. Also in the New Frontier lineup for 2019 were 360-degree feature films and an animated VR miniseries,“Gloomy Eyes.”

Other notable film festivals have followed in the footsteps of Sundance with their own innovative VR offerings. New York’s Tribeca Film Festival has already unveiled its Virtual Arcade features for 2019, which include titles such as “Traitor,” “Another Dream,” and “7 Lives.” Many of the Virtual Arcade’s offerings are fully immersive, allowing viewers to make decisions that impact the film’s plot as well as their overall experience.

At Cannes’ innovation hub Next in 2018, some 25 VR projects were screened, and a complete VR market screening theater was set up, complete with 360-degree Positron chairs. The market arena is the festival’s attempt to get on a piece of what’s projected to be a $34 billion industry by 2023. Such high figures mean that the film industry can no longer afford to ignore or brush aside the impact of VR technology.

Cashing in on VR Tech

While VR films are just beginning to enter the market, the film industry has been harnessing the technology for several years for promotional purposes. In 2015, an immersive promotional video accompanied the release of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, in which viewers could look wherever they pleased, rather than being limited by a director’s imposed viewpoint. The virtual experience was introduced at Sundance in a joint effort between Fox Searchlight, Samsung, and Oculus. “Wild” went on to gross $52 million worldwide on a $15 million budget, according to IMDB. 

The year before “Wild” made a splash at Sundance, Disney released its “Save the Day” VR game that featured characters from its then-upcoming animated film, “Planes 2: Fire and Rescue.” The game was released in the U.K. as a stand-alone unit inside Disney Stores and ODEON Cinemas, and it allowed users to make supply drops and fight fires as characters Dusty and Dipper. 

Along with attracting audiences, VR tech is also useful when it comes to market research. VR enables film companies to directly interact with viewers and gauge responses. Using VR for market research involves the use of eye-tracking software and virtual questionnaires, in which moviegoers can input their thoughts and feelings about a particular film experience in real time. 

While the initial cost of large-scale VR setups can be high, marketers see overall cost savings and efficiency, enabling them to make smart, cost-effective choices when it comes time to release a film to a wider audience. Interactive VR tech has already found a home in several global cinemas, most notably in Amsterdam and Beijing. Amsterdam’s VR cinema, the world’s first, opened in 2016 and can host up to 400 moviegoers daily.

The Changing Landscape of VR

As today’s premier film festivals have successfully demonstrated, the VR tech industry has grown exponentially since the release of the first Oculus Rift headset in 2016. Virtual reality today has far-reaching applications in a number of industries, effectively changing how we learn and interact with the world. 

According to Maryville University, VR technology is already being used for social activities, including networking and video chats, and will soon include the use of haptic feedback devices. Haptic feedback systems simulate the sense of touch via VR gloves or other wearable devices. Further, VR the use of VR headsets will continue to increase in popularity. Along with Oculus, Samsung and Google have released their own standalone VR headsets, and Apple is expected to follow suit as early as 2020.

As more and more companies and industries jump on the VR bandwagon, consumers can expect the technology to keep evolving, thanks to the work of innovative electrical engineers and software developers. Along with VR headsets and theater experiences, other forms of immersive technology include the Virtualizer, a platform-and-belt combination that monitors the user’s movements and footsteps, allowing users to walk freely through a virtual world. The Virtualizer may be a part of the immersive VR film experience in the near future.

As VR continues to make waves in the entertainment world, we can expect a whole new world of film experiences to open up. While entertainment-based VR tech is for now primarily in the realm of video games, filmmakers and production companies are starting to take notice and use the technology to their advantage. In the near future, VR films may become a part of our daily lives in VR theaters, at festivals, and at home.

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