Virtual Reality: Back to the Future, Forwards to the Past

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Virtual reality is upon us.

Simply by putting on a pair of large and not-so-attractive goggles (can goggles ever be attractive?), we come as close to teleportation as we can get. In the comfort of our living rooms, we are taken to a different world, where our actions, most specifically the direction we are looking, will have a direct influence on the images we are seeing on screen. This is the ultimate point of view experience for gaming and video watching.

Strangely, though, with this mesmerising, new and futuristic virtual reality technology, I almost feel like we are back in 1900.

Cinema can be dated back to the mid-1890s, when French directors proudly displayed seconds, or maybe minutes (on a good day) of simple moving image. Movies didn’t tell a story, but rather captured a moment: family lunches, the end of a workday, cars in the street.
There is a wonderful story about the first screenings of ‘The Grand Café’, an 1895 film that features a train pulling in to a station. Before 1895, moving image was an enigma. Although difficult to imagine for the world back then, video was as inconceivable as time travel is today.
It is for this reason that audience reactions to the Grand Café were so extreme.
Inside the French screenings, audiences squealed and jumped and cried when they witnessed the train bearing down on them. They were all fully aware that what they were watching was a recording, but their reactions were instinctive and primordial, captivated by their encounter with an undiscovered technology.
For the next decade or so, films operated under a theory now referred to as the ‘cinema of attractions’. Narrative had not yet been conceived; cinema was more a showing off of new technologies. Early films were designed to barrage the audience’s senses as vehemently as possible. To put it simply, in the early 1900s, people were watching films purely because cinema and the technology behind it were just so fantastically otherworldly.

Which brings us back to Virtual Reality.

I feel like we’ve been talking about the possibility of virtual reality entertainment forever. The whole notion of it used to be presented as some magical impossibility, like something we could dream about but would never actually attain. And now it is a reality. Are we experiencing our very own Grand Café?
Traditional cinema of attractions prioritises the thrill of the image over the narrative or characters. Early cinema-goers didn’t care if the protagonist achieved its goals or even if there was a protagonist, they just wanted to feel wowed.

With Virtual Reality, it is the same thing.

For the beginning of its existence, users will be basking in each facet of the exciting immersive reality technology. An example of content designed to ‘wow’ is ‘Birdly’, a flight simulator. In addition to the headset, users will lie on a specially designed contraption that, together, will give a hyper-realistic sensation of flying like a bird.
It is worth commenting on the ability of this technology to shape the future of cinema. A virtual reality documentary exposing the tragic struggles of Syrian refugees was just played at the Davos World Economic Forum, and it is easy to imagine this form of cinema becoming more and more common. Soon, the way we perceive films could alter drastically, with narrative dictated not by Hollywood studios, but by our own actions as viewers.

It is of yet unknown where simulation technology could lead us.

But that is the future. Today, Virtual Reality has taken us back to a time where we are so unexposed to this form of technology that we will enjoy it simply because we have never enjoyed anything like it before. Once again, we are a world without electricity experiencing light – a world without moving images watching a screen give birth to a slowing train at a station.
We will use VR because we want to feel what it is like to walk through the Amazon or fight in a war. We will use Virtual Reality because it will make gaming feel not only realistic, but real. And it will be like nothing we have ever encountered before. This is the cinema of attractions in its purest form.
We should all put on the ugly goggles and squeal and scream and cry as if this were our first time watching a movie. Because in a way, it is. Sure soon Virtual Reality will be just as exciting as your every day moving image. But for now though, let’s revel in the magic of new technology.

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