Five minutes east of Amsterdam’s central station is a cinema unlike any other. Members of the audience are scattered around on swivelling chairs. The viewing areas—two small rooms with 25 seats each—are bathed in natural light, which pours through large plate-glass windows. Passers-by peer in. Yet none of this troubles the audience; they are cut off from all sound and light by their Samsung Gear virtual-reality (VR) kit. Each person is in a world of their own.
The Virtual Reality Cinema opened in March, and runs eight 30-minute shows five days a week. It is self-sustaining as a business, according to its boss, Jip Samhoud, who has also made short VR films for his cinema-goers. Finding an audience is not a problem for Mr Samhoud; the challenge is finding the content. His cinema employs two people full-time to travel the world in search of fresh VR experiences.
Their task should soon become easier. If 2016 was the year of VR gaming, with the release of PlayStation VR and with Pokémon Go capturing the attention of millions, 2017 will be the year of VR storytelling.
Hollywood studios are pouring money into VR. The Tribeca Film Festival will allow VR films to compete for awards in 2017. Tencent, a Chinese gaming and messaging giant, has commissioned VR movies. Other big Chinese firms are watching closely. And the topic will go mainstream with the release in the spring of “Ghost in the Shell”, a live-action Hollywood version of the cult Japanese anime series, which features virtual reality as a key part of the narrative. In 2017, Mr Samhoud expects, “cinematic vr will get to the next level”.
Yet it remains unclear what exactly that will be. When cinema was pioneered, early film-makers either dabbled in spectacle—a train heading towards the screen—or replicated conventions from theatre, which involved large doses of shouting and melodrama. The first television shows were in essence radio with pictures. It took until the 1950s for the jump-cut to come into vogue. Only with time and experimentation did a language develop for storytelling on screens large and small. A new grammar book is now needed for VR.
The first rules are already being drafted, starting with perhaps the most important: the role of the audience. Oculus, which set off the current VR hype cycle when Facebook bought it for $2bn in 2014, has created Story Studio, which makes original films. Saschka Unseld, who runs Story Studio, thinks about vr viewers in a way that is closer to theatre than to cinema or gaming. The audience is very much present and participating but unable to change or guide a story, he says.
Theatre provides lessons in making movies in VR too, says Mr Samhoud. Actors need to be in character for the duration of the take, not just when they are in frame; the audience is omnipresent. Staging and set-up must be similarly precise. Likewise, far more time goes into pre-production than actual performance.
Gradually, through a process of trial and error, some rules will become golden. But the first step is to start putting films out in the public realm for viewers to decide what works and what doesn’t. More cinemas like the one in Amsterdam are planned, which will allow people who don’t own the necessary gadgets to experience VR. “Our brains still think in the film way,” says Mr Unseld. “It will take a while to separate ourselves from that.” That separation will start to become a (virtual) reality in 2017.