I Explored ‘Interstellar’ Using Oculus Rift. What I Found Was the Future of Storytelling

What is the future of space travel? Can humanity expand beyond our native home? What would it mean if reality could be virtually recreated? These are some of the big questions that have shaped science fiction, and at least one of them is finally very close to being answered.

While Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated new movie Interstellar hopes to provide a preview of the future of space travel, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus are bringing the future of virtual reality to the present.

Trust me, I’ve experienced it firsthand.

I recently attended an exhibit, created by visual effects wunderkinds Framestore, that seemed more science fiction than reality: a tour through Interstellar‘s Endurance spacecraft that included moments of zero gravity and a climactic warp through a worm hole. All of this was brought to life on the screen of the 14-ounce Oculus Rift Developer Kit 2, which was strapped to the face of an often slack-jawed viewer.

Since its initial Kickstarter campaign back in 2012, the Oculus Rift has been turning heads—both figuratively and literally. Many hope it will fulfill the long-anticipated, yet so far unsatisfied, promise of a virtual reality headset that allows for deep immersion and interactivity—two holy grails of audience engagement.

For the uninitiated, the Oculus Rift is a high-resolution headset that goes over the eyes and tracks head movements, creating a feedback-driven experience in which the user can look around in a 3D environment in the same way they would in the real world. Want to look over your shoulder to follow that pen floating past you in zero gravity? You can do that. Want to lean forward to peak around the corner of the glowing hallway ahead? You can do that too.

All in all, the exhibit was a glimpse of the fantastical possibilities of our tech-driven future. As the Oculus Rift nears its anticipated commercial release date sometime next summer, let’s take a peek into what virtual reality means for the future of storytelling.

I, controller: Virtual reality and the future of gaming

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The Oculus Rift’s original raison d’être was for gaming, and virtual reality’s greatest promise, at least at this point in time, still lies in the increasingly mainstream video game industry. Immersion is one of gaming’s biggest charms: Anyone who has spent an extended period of time in a game’s universe (whether that be Zelda or Farmville) knows just how enthralling and impactful a video game can be.

Virtual reality has the potential to take video games to the next level by creating ​profoundly affecting experiences that engage both body and mind by ​​​tricking our eyes and brains into believing that we are in a “real” environment. Some games can provoke such intense physiological reactions that the tool has prompted some to wonder just how far game designers should go when creating purposefully disturbing experiences.

Surprisingly, it is not the Oculus Rift that is today leading the charge in virtual reality gaming, despite its initial commitment to transforming video games with its headeset. Instead, after the Rift’s controversial Facebook acquisition, it appears that Sony’s VR machine Project Morpheus has taken the mantle.

The reason is simple: player input and control. One of the main problems with the Rift throughout its existence, including in the Interstellar demo, is that every experience was forced to be “on rails.” With no dedicated way to control the experience, the user is forced to simply sit there and take it all in. While a great story can be told without user input, the tease of head movement and being placed in a virtual reality environmental makes for a disappointing experience once you realize your freedom to explore the virtual world is limited to your immediate scope of vision.

While an Xbox controller is often used with the Rift, the analog controller seems entirely old-fashioned when paired with a VR headset. To combat this user input problem, Sony’s Project Morpheus is bringing back a technology that was left for dead after the initial success of the Nintendo Wii: the wand-like Move.

With the Move, gamers are given one-to-one input that an analog controller can’t possibly match. This complementary input system is key for making virtual reality something more than a simple tech demo to impress your grandma. By combining with a motion-sensing controller, the headsets become just one part of a system of reality-constructive devices, allowing developers to create a more effective simulation experience that engages your mind and body on a variety of sensory levels.

Without a dedicated input device, the headsets are limited to games like A Night at the Roculus: a hilarious but ultimately shallow experience in which game interaction is limited to neck-cramping head movements. With Move, Sony can create genuinely interactive experiences, like in this (admittedly rough) demo for The Castle. Being able to swing a sword with one-to-one movement from a true first-person view is the dream of geeks everywhere, myself included, and is just one early example of how virtual reality could empower video games to deliver even more compelling stories and experiences than ever before.

The screen to rule all screens: What virtual reality means for TV and movies

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One of the reasons virtual reality is so tailor-made for video games is that the camera in a game world is, of course, virtual itself. In a game, developers can program the camera to do basically whatever they want. The same is not true for filmmakers. So far the Rift and other VR devices are limited to being portable IMAX screens that you strap on your face—which, while valuable in its own way, is nowhere near where virtual reality can take storytelling. Even with this limitation, there is little doubt that the Rift’s immersive effect, especially when it comes to first-person filmed experiences such as in this ingenious and mildly NSFW art exhibit, could provide a unique tool for technophiles and creative filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarόn and James Cameron.

Yet what these headsets need to truly revolutionize the concept of what film can be is a complimentary camera to take advantage of virtual reality’s unique possibilities for user interaction. Luckily, that camera is in the works. Multiple companies, including Geonaute and Condition One, have produced prototypes for the 360-degree cameras that just might change the way filmed stories are told.

These cameras will allow the user to interact with a film like never before, allow for a unique, personalized experience for each viewer and indeed each view. The creative possibilities that these tools provide will undoubtedly push many filmmakers to their imaginative limits, and the potential revolution in film has industry experts foaming at the mouth.

Films like Cameron’s Avatar would be excellent beneficiaries of this innovative new filmmaking style. Instead of being limited to seeing a singular point of view in one of the many battlefield scenes, viewers could instead explore the entire raging conflict around them. They could follow their favorite character or simply go where the most impressive explosions are happening. While this wouldn’t work for all movies, especially ones that rely on a singular and focused perspective, it’s difficult not to see creative filmmakers being able to find artistic and inventive uses for virtual reality.

Virtual reality isn’t necessarily limited to the cinema. In fact, perhaps some of the most practical initial applications of these cameras lie in event television such as sports. Imagine one of these cameras hanging at the rim of a hockey rink, the user able to follow the action as if they were really there—or check away from the puck to see if your team’s goalie is slacking off. You could be onstage at the Academy Awards as you follow your favorite movie stars across the stage, or check out the reactions of the stars in the front row—it’s up to you.

While we may not be at the space exploration period taking center stage in Interstellar, our imagined sci-fi future has come one step close with Interstellar‘s Oculus Rift demo. Entertainment has constantly evolved to bring the consumer closer to the action, to bring the “real experience” into the comfort of your own home; the Oculus Rift promises all this and more. Virtual reality’s boundless possibilities are so far little more than speculation, but don’t be surprised if this small step in technology may turn out to be one giant leap for storytellers everywhere.

Image by Interstellar

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