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The perfect 3D movie theater? How re-writing reality in VR creates a better viewing experience

The perfect 3D movie theater? How re-writing reality in VR creates a better viewing experience

The VR Cinema 3D app is a virtual environment that, when viewed through the Oculus Rift, allows you to feel as if you were sitting in an empty movie theater. We talked about the possibilities of the program when it was first introduced, but at E3 I was able to explore an updated version of the program using the high definition Oculus Rift prototype.

Enough had changed, or had been improved, that it’s worth a second look at the software. What’s interesting isn’t that the program is almost as good as being in a physical movie theater, but that in many ways the program is able to improve the experience of 3D movies.

These are the advantages of being inside a completely virtual world. You don’t really have to give a shit about the rules of physics any more.

Better than being there

I’m sitting in the best seat of the house, about two-thirds of the way to the back of the theater, in the center seat. The 3D trailer for Man of Steel is playing on the screen, and it’s in brilliant 3D. The picture is bright and clear, and there’s no distortion because I’m not wearing 3D glasses. The depth is visible from every seat, and the light from the screen splashes on the seats, just as it does in real life. Explosions bathe the environment in red and orange light. When there is no light coming from the screen, the theater is dark.

This is where I start getting weirded out. There is no light coming from the projector behind me. I see the screen in beautiful 3D, but I’m not wearing any glasses. In fact, the screen doesn’t really exist; it doesn’t have to be white in order to reflect light back at the viewers. We don’t realize how much of the design of something like a movie theater is dictated by the demands of light, and how it’s shown to human beings. Once you begin recreating reality from the ground up, you can throw all that garbage out.

“You have none of the disadvantages of standard stereo, 3D movies. There is no flicker or brightness loss,” Oculus’ Nate Mitchell tells me. The sound is coming from a speaker, so I can hear what’s going on in the physical room my body is in as well as the virtual movie theater. This is when the Rift gives you a sense of discomfort; my physical body thinks it’s in one place, while my brain thinks I’m someplace else.

He’s right though, this is some of the best 3D I’ve ever seen, even though the image quality itself isn’t quite as clear as you’d get in a real digital theater. But the image isn’t dimmed by 3D glasses, and there is no optimal angle from which to view the screen.

Your brain knows that the 3D effect in real life, how you perceive distance when you look around a physical room, is different from the trick used to show people a 3D movie on a screen in that room. The Rift removes that problem; everything looks “real” when you’re wearing it, and the 3D effect of the screen is the same you see when you look at the chairs around you. It’s seamless, so you don’t have to keep refocusing your eyes.

The virtual theater can also get much darker than a physical room can. There are no running lights on the floor or ambient lights that must be kept on for safety. When the image on the screen is black, the room is black.

“It looks perfectly black, and in real life you can’t get it that dim in the movie theater,” Mitchell explained. “During the black parts of the trailer you can’t tell where the screen is. It just disappears.”

These are the effects that movie theaters have been trying to perfect for years, but they are hamstrung by their need to create optimal viewing conditions and they're still living by the laws of our physical world. Light moves a certain way, and the 3D effect of movies needs certain technology to work. This virtual program, upgraded to high definition and with real-time lighting coming from the screen, simply re-invents the entirety of reality around the movie screen.

The demo made me feel weird, and it's not entirely comfortable to be put in a situation where reality is being improved in such a drastic way, to the point where you think about what other experiences can be perfected, changed, or re-evaluated using virtual reality. For now? I could see myself preferring this experience to actually going to the movie theater, especially if I have an extra headset for a kid or two, and non-virtual popcorn and sodas.