VR inches closer to movie mainstream with immersive First Man experience

Ryan Gosling-led moon landing flick gives Universal a natural vehicle to test VR storytelling.

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What's it like to touch down hard in a moon lander? Unless you're very young or very wealthy, you'll probably never get the chance. But if you live in a handful of major cities across the U.S., Universal Pictures is launching a promotional VR experience tied to the newly released Ryan Gosling-led film First Man.

A marketing ploy, to be sure, but the move marks a notable step toward the broader deployment of VR movies, a use case that's being studied closely by movie studios and independent creative agencies.

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Studios like Lionsgate, Disney, Marvel, Warner Brothers, and others have released VR videos. 20th Century Fox released a short VR video way back in 2015 tied to the release of The Martian.

For the last few years running the Sundance Film Festival has screened VR short films that allow the audience to navigate the interior world of a movie in novel ways.

The First Man experience is a collaboration between Universal and VR-focused entertainment and creative studios CreateVR and RYOT. For Universal, the project provides a way to gauge the appetite for virtual reality filmmaking with audiences, as well as to assess the current state of the technology.

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"This was both a fantastic and obvious opportunity for us," says Universal Executive VP of Creative Content, Austin Barker. "So we're thrilled to have brought together real pioneers in the VR space to collaborate on this experience."

Like some of the other VR shorts released by major studios, the First Man experience employs a full-motion chair called Voyager. One of the early stumbling blocks bringing VR to theater settings was figuring out how to enable people to move without causing goggle-wearing viewers to stumble into each other.

Created by technology studio Positron, Voyager incorporates motorized rotation and pitch motion, haptic feedback, 6 degrees of freedom, spatial audio, and built-in VR headsets. The company envisions the seats will one day fill entire theaters.

Critics of melding traditional filmmaking and VR point out that at present VR is a solitary activity. Ensconced in a motorized throne and wearing a headset, the experience lacks the communality of the typical theater experience.

Holding hands with a date doesn't jive with a VR moviegoing experience. Neither does gobbling fistfuls of popcorn.

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Ultimately, the market will decide if VR is worth the price of a ticket. In the meantime, if you happen to live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, or New York City, you can swing by a participating AMC theater to give a moon landing a whirl.

The VR experience runs through October 12.

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