Virtual reality is a solitary, immersive experience best viewed with no distractions. Movie theaters have you laughing or screaming with friends and trying to ignore loud candy wrappers and annoying neighbors kicking your seat.
When I initially heard about Jump into the Light - the first virtual reality cinema in the US founded by VR developers Deathless VR - I had to know how VR would translate into a communal experience. Could the New York-based theater make VR more accessible for people (like me) unwilling to shell out thousands of dollars for a headset and computer? Or does VR work best at home?
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After trying out a mix of films and games on everything from Gear VR to Oculus Rift, I'd say the VR cinema is a great way for VR rookies to try out the technology, but Jump into the Light has some kinks to work out before it's truly ready for primetime. Here's a roundup of my experience at the first American VR cinema, and whether it's worth the $25 price of admission.
The VR theater needs to be a theater
Jump into the Light is located on two floors of an East Village apartment complex where you can buy an hour-long ticket on every Friday from 6–10 pm. After signing a waiver about simulation sickness I sat down in a swivel chair and put on a standard Gear VR headset and headphones.
After adjusting my focus, I hit play on an auto-playlist of 12 short VR films that lasted about 35 minutes in total. If you have your own headset or use Google Cardboard at home, a lot of these films may already be familiar: The cinema draws from popular free films and demos like Dreams of Dalí, Invasion VR and The Forest to fill up its playlist, whereas only one film was made by Deathless VR.
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Considering Jump into the Light would need to buy any one VR film for each of its twenty or so smartphones, it logically makes sense that they'd shoot for free films for their cinema experience. But it definitely makes things less exciting for VR veterans looking for something new.
It also made the playlist distractingly eclectic in tone. There was one odd stretch where I studied the large hadron collider, turned into a scared kid terrorized by monsters inside a tent and then transformed into a bunny dealing with incompetent, hilarious alien invaders.
And just as your traditional movie experience can be ruined by one aggravating movie-goer, I found myself frequently, annoyingly distracted from my films. A bass-heavy techno soundtrack played in the background of the apartment, penetrating right through my headphones. Everything from other customers' laughter to the doorbell seemed to cut into my enjoyment of any given film.
Movie theaters usually let you become immersed in compelling stories, but it's difficult when you're shifting in-between rapid-fire films in a boisterous environment instead of diving comfortably into one long story. I'm also curious whether the theater will add different films to encourage people to come back for more, or if the experience really only targets first-time viewers. As of right now, I don't expect them to keep the playlist updated.
VR and film
- Cannes Film Festival 2016: Our pick of the best VR films and experiencesFrom graphic novel adaptations and Danish arthouse to a Walking Dead FPS
- Tribeca Film Festival 2016: Our picks for best VR films and gamesThe most immersive VR storytelling, outrageous humor, weird experiences and more
- How VR experiments at Sundance are bringing our bodies into the pictureOur impressions from the best of 30 film festival shorts and installations
VR Playlab snafus
The costliness of VR headsets makes it highly unlikely you'll ever own more than one device at a time, giving consumers a tough choice on which to buy. But Jump into the Light's Playlab, which has setups for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, could be a testing ground to help uncertain buyers make the choice easier or let owners of one device try out the one they passed over.
On the fourth floor, I had a chance to strap on an Oculus Rift DK2 connected to a Leap Motion SDK. While it was the dev device, I was still able to play games perfectly fine. Blocks VR, pictured above, slowly familiarizes you with motion controls before setting you loose to build towers of blocks and mess with gravity. The other game, Geometric VR, lets you play with and knock around cute shapes with your hands.
Essential read: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive
Again, both games are freely available online by other developers, but in this case they require expensive hardware and a complicated setup instead of a smartphone. Of the entire experience, I had the most fun during this portion of the night. This floor may have been much louder and more chaotic than the third floor, but in this case the atmosphere didn't detract from my gaming experience. Everything from the chatty VR devs hanging out to concessions like candy and beer made it an enjoyable place to hang out.
Unfortunately, their HTC Vive setup for Tilt Brush, which lets you draw artwork in 3D using motion controllers, was having technical problems during my hour slot; I actually stayed 20 minutes past my designated hour with a couple other guests, hoping they could fix it in time before we left. Considering we're a few weeks past their theater's opening date, I was surprised and disappointed that they didn't have the setup ready in advance.
Taking the "ultimate 3D selfie"
The most interesting part of the night came when I had my 3D photo taken. Pedro Estevez, 3D lab developer for Deathless VR, walked around me three times with a tablet and a Structure Sensor 3D camera capturing every inch of my body as I stood perfectly still.
My head proved strangely 3D-resistant at first, as you can see in the picture above, but Pedro was kind enough to give it another two goes before we got a version with my brain intact.
Pedro told me that during the six days out of the week when they don't invite people into the studio, they're hard at work on their own VR technology. One of the main ideas right now is creating 3D avatars for users while they're inside VR films and games. You'll be able to look down and see 'yourself' below you, with your arms potentially registered by Vive controllers or leap motion tracking.
The inability to see your body or hands in VR films is a personal pet peeve of mine, as it can disrupt the feeling of immersion so the idea of inserting a 3D avatar of yourself into the simulation has a lot of potential.
For now, this technology remains a long way off from being viable. But you can currently take your 3D avatar and share it on social media, embed it on a website or even 3D print yourself.
The Future of Cinema?
Jump into the Light doesn't fit the traditional model of a cinema. So far there's only a static collection of films available, rowdy atmosphere and plenty of technical kinks to work out that movie theaters have had decades to fix.
However there's also a friendly, knowledgeable staff on hand ready to make the experience as enjoyable as possible, plus expensive hardware setups that save you from buying your own computer rigs and downloading content. Then there's the potential for VR special events down the road.
As interest in VR continues to grow, more popups and similar concepts will likely open up making sure that this theater won't be the last. While I think Jump into the Light has a lot of room for improvement and isn't really for the hardcore fans of VR, it's still a great starting point to recommend to friends and family who want to experience VR for the first time.