Virtual reality theaters have been around for a little while now. Last year, /Film’s Peter Sciretta wrote about visiting IMAX’s flagship VR Experience Center in Los Angeles, a physical location where you can don a headset and a haptic backpack to play VR games in pods rented by the hour. But Paramount Pictures has collaborated with companies like Oculus, Samsung, and Microsoft to launch a new virtual reality movie theater that you can visit without leaving your couch. Could this be another step toward phasing out the theatrical experience altogether?
Deadline reports that Paramount, in partnership with a company called Bigscreen, will launch a completely virtual theater experience next month in which consumers with any brand of VR headset can sign in to bigscreenvr.com and enter a virtual reality “theater,” in which they’ll “sit” and watch a movie play out on a big screen that looks just like one you’d actually visit at a brick-and-mortar location. The virtual location will be decked out with theatrical one-sheets and even play trailers before the screening begins.
Some VR designers have simulated experiences like this before, but the new angle here is that “moviegoers will be seated in a virtual audience and can chat before the movie starts to everyone next to them or watching with them.” So it’s creating a social experience without having to physically go anywhere.
The virtual theater opens on December 3, and consumers will be able to watch Top Gun 3D for free. Here’s the downside: you can only watch it in 30 minute increments, and it’s only available for 24 hours. It’s unclear how much time has to elapse between 30 minute sessions before you can resume watching the movie again.
It’s worth noting that there are actual brick-and-mortar locations for virtual reality theaters in the world, like Amsterdam’s VR Cinema. The difference there is you wear a headset, sit in swivel chairs with other people, and experience a 360 degree story as a group. But Paramount’s new venture seems to entirely remove physicality from the movie-watching experience…and while that might seem strange, it might actually be a preferable method of watching something for moviegoers who are fed up with annoying crowds who are always checking their phones or talking throughout a film. Imagine sitting in a theater and being able to mute people who are talking while still getting perfect audio of the movie you’re watching.
So what’s the difference between this and just renting a movie on VOD? Not much, as far as I can tell. This just give you the simulated experience of watching a movie on a theater screen instead of queuing something up on your TV or laptop screen. But Tom Hayes, Paramount’s Senior Vice President of New Media, sees this as a big step:
“It launches a possible new platform for the film business,” Hayes said. “Obviously, you can add all sorts of bonus content with the filmmakers Q&A, games, trivia, for example, afterwards. There’s no limit to what we can do…
Paramount wants to be where the consumers are and the media landscape is changing and we want to be as vanguard as possible. We have to make the theaters a bigger and better experience. Jim G [Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos] is a progressive thinker, and we want to get out front and see where audiences want to go. There is quite a cultural difference between high-tech and Hollywood. Here we are testing something that is a page turner in the history of media.”
Do you think completely virtual theaters like this could another step toward phasing out regular theaters? I know virtual reality headsets aren’t in every home in America yet (not by a long shot), but looking ahead, I can imagine a future in which going to a physical theater becomes a far more rare thing and many people decide to save gas, time, and (presumably) money by just kicking on their VR headset and heading to the theater without leaving home. What do you think?