Can virtual reality really get people back into movie theaters?

Alexis Christoforous
Anchor

It’s been 25 years since “The Lawnmower Man” hit theaters and introduced virtual reality to the masses by using early VR hardware instead of Hollywood props.  The film’s director, Brett Leonard, is considered a pioneer of VR in film and continues to champion the technology in movie making.

“I don’t even call it virtual reality anymore,” Leonard tells me in the video above. “I call it virtual experience. VE is something that’s coming at us like a tsunami — humans being able to interact with an artificial, simulated reality.”

While companies including Facebook, Google, Samsung and Sony plow billions of dollars into the technology behind VR, Leonard is focused on the content, or storytelling, that he believes will drive the medium.

“Everyone’s jumping in,” he explains. “Sony has a great position in the marketplace because of Sony Playstation VR, but without compelling content that grabs the imagination of the mass market, it’s all dressed up with no place to go.”

Leonard says that is why he partnered with Scott Ross, formerly of LucasFilm, to found the company Virtuosity Entertainment, which he describes as the Pixar of virtual reality.

Leonard thinks that virtual reality, which usually requires users to wear a headset, can be very isolating. He is working to make VR a social experience.

“We have to bring human emotion to this medium, not just a clinical and technological experience.”

He’s betting that a social virtual experience will be enough to convince millennials to get off the couch, turn off Netflix and head to a movie theater.

Data from the National Association of Theater Owners shows that attendance at movie theaters is declining as cord cutting becomes more popular.

Leonard’s company is working with film studios and Fortune 500 companies to help create the platform for this virtual storytelling.

He predicts the movie-going experience will become more immersive thanks to technology similar to that used in 3-D web browsers like Janus VR and Web VR. Those sites allow people to engage with each other in a virtual experience without wearing a headset.

“This transition technology is critical right now,” Leonard says, “because we have to transition VE for the mass market.” But he’s not betting on any one given technology. “It’s going to change so rapidly over the next 5 years.”