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IMAX wants to add VR to your next movie

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
The IMAX VR headset
This VR headset is coming to IMAX (Image: Rob Pegoraro)

BERLIN — At a press conference before the IFA trade show here in Berlin, Germany, IMAX announced plans to add a bit of virtual reality to its IMAX theater experience with the opening of a new VR center in Los Angeles equipped with a new StarVR headset developed by Acer.

These short virtual-reality videos would essentially be the in-theater equivalent of the extras on a Blu-ray movie: additional content you can explore in virtual reality, the dessert you indulge in after a cinematic main course. And IMAX thinks you’ll want to pay $10 or so for this pleasure.

Rob Lister, IMAX’s chief business-development officer, described it as a logical extension of his employer’s mission “to give people an experience they can’t get anywhere else” and said the company (IMAX) is talking to “virtually every major Hollywood studio” about creating VR productions.

How it will work

Will you really want to pay $10 to experience one of these VR shorts after shelling out $15 or so for an IMAX flick? Lister seems to think so — explaining during an interview Wednesday that the experience would be more than just sitting inertly with a screen strapped to your face.

That is, it won’t be like that infamous photo from this February’s Mobile World Congress of Facebook founder and VR evangelist Mark Zuckerberg striding past an audience all wearing Samsung GearVR headsets.

Instead, Lister said, you’d have 15 to 20 “pods,” each with six to eight feet of space for you to walk around, HTC Vive-style, and explore a “heavily interactive” VR environment that would offer more than a simple movie trailer.

“I’m thinking seven to 10 minutes is kind of the duration of the ideal companion piece,” he explained. “It needs to stand on its own and have its own narrative. People wouldn’t pay $10 to watch a trailer.”

After L.A., IMAX is eyeing locations in New York, London and Shanghai. They could be added to an existing IMAX theater or set up in a mall or as a standalone establishment.

Google is also helping with the initiative, having announced a collaboration with IMAX in May. Acer, in turn, recruited game and VR developer Starbreeze Studios to develop the StarVR headset you’ll wear at one of these IMAX annexes.

The StarVR headset features two 5.5-in. displays that yield more than five million pixels of resolution and a wider field of view, 210 degrees instead of the usual 100 degrees. Starbreeze CEO Bo Andersson Klint bragged at Acer’s IFA press event: “We want to create the Matrix.”

Art over engineering

Acer had some StarVR headsets available at its event for people to try on and watch a VR clip — a short video called “Cockatoo Spritz” done by Stephane Barbato for the Cannes Film Festival.

The StarVR did indeed feel more immersive than other VR headsets I’ve put on, and the resolution looked sharper as well. The VR tour of Yosemite National Park I got last week suddenly seemed like a simpler production.

The content itself, however, was a little weird. A succession of outlandishly-dressed characters at a cocktail party interacted in various ways — as I looked around, I could decide which conversational fragment to follow — and then the scene ended with a flurry of dollar bills and feathers filling the screen. This may not be quite the material to make VR a mass-market phenomenon.

During Acer’s event, Lister said a sequel to the movie Avatar would be a natural fit for this sort of VR bonus content. That makes sense to me; I could also see the recent IMAX International Space Station documentary “A Beautiful Planet” being paired with a VR tour of the ISS like the one I enjoyed at NASA’s SXSW exhibit this March.

Creative types will have to figure out what works on their own — one of many uncertain aspects of a medium that’s been more hype than commercial reality so far.

During our chat, Lister also suggested having your own audience would add to the experience. He recounted visiting some VR centers in China that feature monitors showing the virtual world a headset-wearing friend explores that others not wearing headsets could see.

“You’re watching your friends when involved in it,” he said. “It’s not a solitary experience at all.”

In other words, the soundtrack of mass-market virtual reality may include the laughter of your friends.

(Disclosure: IFA’s organizers are covering most of my travel expenses and those of a group of U.S. journalists and analysts.)

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.