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!”
What’s on tap?
As I take my seat and strap on my headset, I’m advised to watch the Horror package “because it shows off the best virtual reality effects.” Meanwhile, the Docu-fiction is “interesting but less immersive.”
I opt for both.
Classifying the Horror films as “Horror” is a bit generous. They’re creepy or chock-full of jump scares, and, yeah, I’m squirming during the first film, but there’s no lingering unease, no haunted dreams or trauma once the headset comes off. Two of the shorts do stand out though.
VR Cinema is a business, not a social project.
In Sonar you’re launched from a mothership in deep space, towards an asteroid for what becomes a search-and-rescue mission with a twist. The plot never fully develops, but the film is visually impressive and one of the more immersive in the package.
Catatonic is a wheelchair-bound journey through an insane asylum where you meet fellow residents like the masturbating man and rabid little girl, among other unsavory characters. If any of the horror films ingrain into your brain, it’s this one.
On the Docu-fiction front, The Pursuit of Happiness: Farah introduces you to the unfamiliar surroundings of a displaced, 12-year-old Syrian girl as she narrates her family’s refugee experience.
Witness 360: 7/7 follows the story of the 2005 London train bombing, recounted by a survivor.
But as insightful and emotionally moving as the Docu-fiction films are, they feel out of place in a cinema that’s unapologetically branded as a place for entertainment, not an arthouse or museum.
Berlin’s Location Manager, Michael Yosef, says this became apparent when one of their packages featured the aptly named In Your Face, a 12-minute self-produced film that forces the viewer to confront the real world ramifications of the refugee crisis when a young Syrian girl appears at the doorstep asking for shelter.
“[In Your Face] was just too heavy for some people. They would come into the cinema really excited and then they’d see this heavy content about refugees and it would be too much. That’s why we changed our whole content package – so that everyone who comes to the cinema can leave with a good feeling.”
Immersive experiences like these have been shown to increase empathy and even help treat psychological conditions such as severe paranoia. But, the VR Cinema is a business, not a social project. When they pay, “people prefer to be entertained,” Yosef said.
Content over quality
The VR Cinema is a whole lot of show and not a lot of substance – a place where people rent time with some of the hottest technology rather than buying devices of their own. Likewise, as a fledgling medium, VR is experimenting, ironing its kinks, and emphasizing experience over storyline until it fits its britches.
But as devices become more affordable, will people leave the house to experience VR?
You can currently purchase a Samsung Gear headset for under $100 – or the price of seven trips to the VR Cinema. Piper Jaffray Investment Research forecasts that, over the next decade, VR entry costs will be cut in half for truly immersive headsets, which currently cost from $400-600.
“When the weather is good, people want to be outside.”
If VR isn’t mainstream now, it will be soon.
Meanwhile, the future of VR movies doesn’t look exceptional. Artists and journalists will use the technology as long as it strengthens their crafts, and financial grants will keep these projects funded. But pure entertainment – the type you’d watch at the VR Cinema – needs to turn profit.
Goldman Sachs projects that, by 2025, consumer VR software will be an $18.9 billion industry annually, including video games ($11.6 billion), live events ($4.1 billion), and video entertainment ($3.2 billion). If the past is any indication of the future, porn will take lion’s share of that $3.2 billion, leaving scraps for other films and television shows. Considering that most VR users will be watching from home anyway, it’s hard to imagine how a VR theater can sustain itself without offering an utterly unique experience and becoming something other than a cinema.
Today, the Cinema does offer something unique for most people: VR. They curate content and help customers fumble through selection screens. But, a few years from now, as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, there won’t be a lot here that can’t be experienced from the comfort of your home.
A disruptive experience
Despite being a new technology, the VR Cinema caters to folks of all ages. Yosef says he often has schools and businesses bring groups by on a retreat. In fact, this weekend a bus of senior citizens are traveling up from Bavaria just to visit the cinema.
Still, I can’t help but feel a restless energy in the empty space, as though the disruptive new technology is trying to break free from – or overcome – the expectations of an antique industry.
Yosef shares this concern. He acknowledges that Berlin’s VR Cinema is still more or less “in the pop-up stage,” and that it needs to be financially viable by the end of summer. He references a cinema industry rule: “When the weather is good, people want to be outside.”
As I’m stuck there in the middle of a love film called Jet Lag, I feel a hand on my shoulder, and I begin to sense VR manifest as reality.
But it’s just an attendant disrupting my experience to deliver some great news. “A big group just arrived,” he says. I slip my headset off and, sure enough, there are some fifteen people waiting to strap their headsets on. As I exit the venue, I’m followed by the sound of their oohs, ahhs, and oh hell naws.
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