It’s just after 7PM on an overcast Friday and the “world’s first” virtual reality cinema is virtually empty.
Disco balls cast technicolor light onto white-tile walls. There’s enough space in the lounge to seat twenty, and there’s standing room for twice as many. Customers are conspicuous in the absence. It feels like prom night before anyone’s arrived.
“I’m surprised you found us,” a woman quips when I walk in.
I admit, in another city, I would’ve turned around while trying to find this place. But, in Berlin, Germany, it’s shady if your destination doesn’t take you to a courtyard behind steel doors, past a dumpster, through plastic strip curtains, and up four flights of stairs with chipped paint, copper pipes, and exposed lightbulbs hanging above.
The absence of other people won’t spoil my VR experience (I hope), but it’s worrisome for a company trying to prove that a disruptive new technology is a viable business model in a century-old industry. If the world’s first VR cinema can’t attract customers on a dreary Friday evening, when can it?
The VR Cinema offers a rotating list of three packages: Horror, Docu-fiction, and Fun Time for the kids. Each includes a handful of short films in a 30-minute screening. At €12.50 (about $15) per package, the fee isn’t cheap, particularly in a city like Berlin that prides itself on being “poor but sexy.” But maybe people will fork over that cash for novelty alone.
Through the lounge, a set of French doors open into a remarkable room with an arched ceiling, forty swivel chairs, and forty Samsung Gear headsets. “Sit wherever you want,” an attendant says. “They’re all the same.”
That’s the thing about VR – it doesn’t really matter where you are once the headset is on. And you might come with others but VR is an isolated experience.
Theater has been a social event since the Hellenistic age at least. When talkies emerged in the late 1920s, going to the cinema meant experiencing — and often reviewing — a single film as a group. Try as it might to recreate the atmosphere of classic cinemas, the state of contemporary VR means the product must be consumed in solitude.
That solitude does have a few advantages over traditional theaters. For one, a VR experience won’t be ruined by nosebleed seats, since the screen is literally in your face. And chatty neighbors become muffled by personal headphones. VR may kill the joy of an audience’s collective cheer at the death of a villain, but it also silences shouts at fatally curious character: “Don’t go in there!”