I'm a huge fan of movies. I prefer to watch them at my local movie theatre, like most cinephiles, but when I'm not out at the multiplex I'm always trying to improve my home viewing experience. From picture quality to streaming services to sound, I'm all in on finding the best way to watch movies.
In my VR diary, I've tried to see if virtual reality can help replace traditional hobbies. So why not extend that to my favourite pastime: watching movies. Can VR offer a better film-going experience than actually going to the cinema, or chilling out with friends and family at home?
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The big elephant in the room here is the theatrical window. That's the period of time in which cinemas have the exclusive licence to show the hottest new movies. It's basically why you're not going to be able to watch Avengers: Infinity War at home (legally) for at least two months. Unless you want to jump into the world of illegal streaming, there isn't a way to watch the latest releases in VR.
Everything else though? That's all good. I decided to start simple, and jumped into Hulu's VR app. The app, once you've signed in, is actually divided into two sections. There's Hulu's VR section, which features 360-degree documentaries and the like, and then there's regular TV. The idea here is that your virtual reality headset is transformed into your own personal cinema.
I was feeling a little bit down, so I decided to put in Daddy's Home. As I was watching the mediocre antics of Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, I began to grow more interested in the scenery around me. Like other viewing apps, Hulu is trying to replicate a movie-watching environment at your home. So there are cool couches and a kitchen and even a coffee table with blocks spelling out Hulu.
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I quickly grew bored of Hulu's sterile home, though, especially since it lacked the one big thing watching movies at home has: friends. When you're watching a film at home, it's easy for friends or family to come by, plop themselves down and watch with you. Here, you're just watching it by yourself, completely unaware of the world.
Usually, when I'm watching a movie, my brother will walk past and ask what I'm watching. I'll tell him, we'll launch into a short conversation and he'll either sit down and watch with me or go on with his day. This interaction doesn't happen in Hulu's VR app. I'm just on an island watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg be daddies.
So I decided to use Hulu's scenery-changing abilities to change the environment to a movie theatre. It's far easier to get lost and forget about other people here, and people do their best to avoid talking too (if you're lucky). However, once I did that the app kind of froze and wouldn't remove the menu from the screen. So I couldn't even continue watching the movie.
Frustrated and hoping for social interaction, I turned to Bigscreen. Yes, finally, an app built for VR moviewatching that takes social watching into consideration. I took a look at the open rooms and decided to watch awards darling Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri.
I was sat next to three other people represented by virtual avatars, and we were all watching Three Billboards together. Finally, communal bonding! I was pretty excited to see how this all worked, but then the movie started stuttering and the quality was so bad it made me miss the days of renting from Blockbuster and hoping you got a good VHS tape. On top of that, all I heard was breathing through mics. My compatriots in movie-watching were turning out to be a distraction. Worse, they were complete strangers.
When I want to watch a movie with my friends, I either go with them to a cinema or have them over. I don't hope they have an expensive desktop capable of running an expensive high-end VR system so we can sit together virtually to enjoy a movie. If I wanted to watch a movie with strangers and be slightly distracted by their idiosyncrasies I'd go to a movie theatre.
It's not all bad. There are a lot of little tricks in VR moviewatching apps that do a good job of simulating a big screen experience. Because everything is virtual, the screen can feel as big as you want it. Bigscreen's cinema legitimately feels like you're in a movie theatre. Add in spatial audio, especially on a headset like the Oculus Rift, and you've got a pretty darn good audio experience (not as good as Dolby Atmos, of course, but let's not be too picky).
If I wanted to watch a movie with strangers and be slightly distracted by their idiosyncrasies I'd go to a movie theatre
A lot of people may enjoy watching movies alone in the comfort of their own rooms, but the communal aspect of watching movies is still one of the most important parts of the experience – at least for me. There's nothing like watching a great comedy with a crowd of people, the waves of laughter making each moment funnier than you might have found it alone. Or even a great horror movie, where everyone around you is tense with terror until the monster or murderer pops out from around the corner.
VR can't do that. It's pretty good at simulating a good experience in your home should you like watching things alone, especially if you don't have the space or the budget for a big TV and sound system. It gives you access to tons of space, and spatial audio can at least simulate the effect of high-end audio systems. When it comes to mobile and standalone VR too, it could come into its own outside the home when travelling – on planes or in hotel rooms.
But if you're looking for a movie experience at its most pure, with an energy and a sense of community, VR just can't compete.