H’w’d nears virtual reality

Hollywood’s love affair is heating up with the hottest new technology in entertainment, virtual reality.

That’s the buzz, say engineers who are working in this fledgling industry. Increasingly, word is leaking out from the studios of VR efforts that are under way, albeit with mixed results.

One reason may be that VR has yet to be exactly defined.

It can be as simple as an arcade game in which players battle in a world that exists only on a computer screen, complete with stereo sound. Or as complex as wearing a six-pound headset with one’s entire vision dominated by a computer-generated environment. With a glove studded with electronic sensors, players can interact with this world.

Both versions have gotten boosts from Hollywood recently. Last week, Tim Disney and members of Shamrock Holdings plunked down $ 10 million to $ 15 million for controlling interest in Chicago’s Virtual World Entertainment Inc., a leading purveyor of the technology through its BattleTech games.

In September, Paramount Communications Inc. signed with Edison Brothers Stores Inc. to bring a VR version of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to shopping centers in late 1993.

Edison distributes Virtuality, a head-mounted display made by Britain’s W Industries. By donning the gear, players would be able to play games on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.

Tim Disney’s efforts, says Andy Halliday, head of Edison’s Horizon Entertainment group, which handles Virtuality, “can’t help but serve notice to the public that VR is a medium that will have a life to it and (a) substantial investment.”

More projects under development:

o Walt Disney Studio’s Imagineering division, which is in charge of the theme parks, is reportedly going to use the flying carpet from “Aladdin” as the basis for a VR experience.

o Sega Enterprises Ltd., the videogames maker, is considering entering the field with a so-called VR-park in Japan, which would draw on its wealth of videogame characters and titles.

o Two weeks ago, Iwerks Entertainment Inc. teamed with Salt Lake City’s Evans & Sutherland Corp., one of the largest VR hardware makers, for an attraction called “Virtual Adventures”–a VR component for its Cinetropolis theater centers (Daily Variety, June 23).

o VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, former head of VPL Research Inc., is promoting a new theater experience based on work he started with MCA Inc.

But what’s next?

“Voomies,” says Lanier. That’s what he calls the movies of the future. For example, players would go to a theater to interact in a virtual reality with a storyline. There could even be guides within the environment to help move the story along.

A number of trends, he believes, are conspiring to bring computer-generated imagery with a story to the public sooner than expected.

“In 10 years, a home TV will have a better image and sound quality than in a theater. What will people leave their homes to see?” asks Lanier. “We’re looking at the theatrical entertainment of the next century.”

Until recently, the studios didn’t appear interested in anything beyond the next film slate.

For good reason. MCA Inc. recently pulled the plug on a project with Lanier’s VPL, reportedly because of concerns over escalating costs. Moreover, Lanier was tossed out of his own company by key investor Thomson CSF after the company defaulted on a loan.

The question now, say engineers, is how believable the reality has to be to produce Voomies. Hollywood exex “have such a high expectation on the visual quality because they’re in the movie business,” says Ken Pimentel, product manager of Sense 8, in Sausalito, and author of “Virtual Reality: Through the Looking Glass.”

“The only way to achieve that is spending a lot of money. You have to spend $ 75,000 a seat,” in theaters.

But the day when prices come down is close at hand.

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