Cinema: Virtual reality in cinemas

Madre is a chilling Chilean thriller
Madre is a chilling Chilean thriller

This year I have been lucky enough to attend Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival for the second time. I was invited to chair a panel with fellow Yorkshire colleagues and stateside experts to discuss the future of Virtual Reality technology in cinemas, examples of best practice of presentation and ways in which cinema operators might be able to engage with and present this new medium in their venues.

Joining me on the panel were Sheffield’s own Doc/Fest who were one of the earliest adopters of VR into their festival programme, Live Cinema UK who are researching many types of 360 degree film presentations, including dome screens and VR. Finally, from San Francisco; Kaleidoscope, who represent a community of VR filmmakers and games developers who also produce VR showcase events around the world.

For an audience of approximately 150 we discussed the pros and cons of VR in cinemas, it’s potential for collective experiences, how dome screens might take planetarium technology and bring film to life in 360, how the language we use to discuss VR and market it will impact on the audience expectations and potential for audience reach.

I entered the panel as chair, playing devil’s advocate to a degree and being naturally cynical about VR so far. I left feeling slightly less cynical, moderately more excited about the future of VR but adamant that traditional cinema experiences will have a place in culture as the technology progresses despite a colleague proclaiming that VR will replace all media in our lifetimes. It was a pleasure to be part of this discussion and the audience seemed keen to continue on the conversation after the panel which is certainly good to see.

For the remainder of my time at SXSW I have been enjoying the film programme, with highlights including Chilean thriller MADRE; the story of a woman who becomes convinced that her nanny, who seems to be the only person able to communicate with her autistic son, is in fact using voodoo to take control and plotting her downfall. There was also a prison group therapy doc THE WORK - which broke my heart a little bit as hardened criminals let their guard down in intense psychotherapy at Folsom Prison. I tried my hand at the VR experiences in the specialist zone, and spent some time tipping my toes in the music programme despite my musical ignorance. SXSW is an enormous festival, with many art-forms, industries and themes which can sometimes be rather confusing, plus the ‘6th Street crush’ is a bit much sometimes but it has been a fantastic learning experience into how a multi-arts festival can flourish.