There’s no avoiding it: 2016 has been a big year for virtual reality, penetrating everything from Facebook to theme parks.

Whether it be the new gimmick to replace 3D cinema or not, VR – for the moment – seems here to stay. With a plethora of VR headsets for tech-hungry consumers to chose from, it is inevitable that this ultimate immersive experience should find its way into the home cinema market; but are home cinema enthusiasts interested? Can they afford it? What content even is there? And could it (and more importantly, should it?) replace the traditional home cinema sound system and projector set-up?

“Virtual reality most definitely has a place in the home cinema arena,” Jason Lovell, senior product manager, Samsung VR (since publishing Jason now runs VR and AR consultancy business, Captivate) tells CE Pro. “The technology is really taking off and film and video entertainment will be key part of VR’s direction moving forward as the industry grows and the technical capabilities of VR evolve with it.”

Indeed, VR is incredibly immersive, presenting a new way of consuming cinematic content, allowing the viewer to be completely absorbed in the experience – with no distractions.

Agreeing with Jason is Richard Vincent, founder of communications agency, Fundamental, which has begun to explore the potential of VR and 360 social video.

“It absolutely has a place within home cinema,” he tells CE Pro. “Home cinema has always been about getting the most immersive sound and vision experience; VR takes this to a whole new level – whether that is watching 2D film in the most exciting/sexy virtual cinema room, or with fully immersive VR video content. For the home cinema customer,” – although CE Pro is not so sure home theatre installers would agree – “this is a really exciting time as potentially the cost of physically creating a cinema room has now dropped from £15-25K to £2-4K: a much more accessible option for a much wider audience. However I don’t think it replaces, I think it augments. It’s a viewing choice.”

Let’s not forget that each of the headline-grabbing VR sets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR) exist primarily for gamers to enjoy. However, with commercial VR cinemas popping up in more and more countries, the potential in the home is not to be overlooked.

“VR also brings with it huge opportunities for filmmakers,” Jason nods. “Due to its immersive nature it can elicit emotions from the viewer in much stronger ways – hence its potential is extremely exciting – we’re already seeing this with VR films on the Oculus Store. However, it is important to note that VR is not just a new tech or another screen, it’s an entirely new way of engaging with and relating to technology, providing a completely different entertainment experience for viewers.”

Samsung Gear VR

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So let’s talk Samsung Gear VR and cinema: Weighing 318kg and available for £80, the headset is a mobile virtual reality headset developed by Samsung Electronics in collaboration with Oculus, manufactured by Samsung.

Compatible with Galaxy S7 edge, S7, Note 5, S6 edge+, S6 and S6 edge phones, the phone itself acts as the headset’s display and processor, while the Gear VR unit acts as the controller, which contains the high field of view as well as a custom inertial measurement unit, or IMU for rotational tracking, which connects to the smartphone via micro-USB.

According to Gear VR, watching a movie in a VR theatre is ‘the next best thing to owning your own personal multiplex’. Free from the distractions of the outside world, Samsung promises that the viewer will be completely immersed when watching movies on a theatre-sized scale.

“There are so many opportunities for Gear VR in home cinema – users can explore games, films, 360 video content, as well as user generated 360/VR content – and also enjoy video on demand services like Netflix,” Jason elaborates.

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Previously known as Oculus Cinema, Oculus Video is available for Gear VR, allowing users to immersive themselves in ‘their very own movie theatre,’ with the perception of viewing content on a cinema-sized screen. Plus, a host of social features have been introduced in order to replicate the experience of being in a movie theatre or home theatre with a group of friends. Oculus Video allows people to experience films through a virtual cinema or even just a plain screen; it’s up to the user.

“It’s at an early stage and it’s clunky, but it’s a good indication of the potential for shared space home cinema viewing,” says Richard on Oculus Video. “Imagine a shared viewing experience in a ‘virtual’ cinema room with friends from around the globe!”

There are two ways for a user to watch their own video content in the ‘My Videos’ section of Oculus Video: any films that are recorded using a phone’s camera will automatically appear in the ‘My Videos’ section. The other way is to copy compatible video files directly to a phone or SD card. On a PC, a phone’s storage can be accessed from Windows Explorer by simply plugging in the USB data/charging cable – no software is required.

“Users can even view traditional 2D or even 3D content in VR via Oculus Video,” says Jason. “They can even view in a virtual cinema. The opportunities are endless and I really think we’ll start to see consumers realising the potential VR offers over the next year or so.”

Oculus Rift

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Kicking things up a notch (in both the hardware and wallet departments) by foregoing the use of a phone as an interface is of course, Oculus Rift, which is available now for £549.

Owned by Facebook, Oculus Rift is arguably the most popular (or should CE Pro say, the most well known) virtual reality headset currently on the market. The headset uses an OLED panel for each eye, each with a resolution of 1080×1200 with a 90Hz refresh rate and 110° field of view to reduce motion blurring or juddering, plus integrated headphones which provide a 3D audio effect, as well as rotational and positional tracking.

However, to get the premium VR experience, the user must invest in a little more than just the headset itself: the gaming PC required in order to use the device is not included in the price. The headset requires PC hardware running a 64-bit version of Microsoft Windows 7 SP1 or later, and Oculus Rift’s minimum requirements specify a CPU equivalent to an Intel Core i5-4590, at least 8GB of RAM, and at least an AMD Radeon R9 200 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 graphics card. Oculus VR says that the device will initially support Windows, whilst support for Linux and macOS will be developed in the future.

Aside from its obvious gaming advantages, Rift is also taking the home theatre market seriously ­– including Oculus Video as a free application – which allows the Rift to be used to view conventional movies and videos from inside a virtual cinema environment, giving the wearer the perception of viewing the content on a cinema-sized screen.

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And if that isn’t enough to convince you how seriously Oculus is taking the cinema market, perhaps its Story Studio offering will. Plucking multiple former employees from major VFX companies such as PIXAR and ILM, Story Studio has already started producing VR movies. Oculus first sensed the potential of movies in VR after showing off the Rift to Hollywood filmmakers, who were interested in exploring the new immersive medium.

“We didn’t have an answer for them,” Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe was quoted as saying. “We knew how to get started with games, but we didn’t know how to get started with film, with Hollywood, with cinema.”

HTC Vive

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Another company making a major play in the VR headset space is HTC with the HTC Vive. Like the Rift, it requires a Windows PC with a specific GPU. Available now and priced at £689, the Vive has a refresh rate of 90Hz and uses two screens – one per eye – each with a resolution of 1080×1200.

Powered by SteamVR, the whole package includes the headset, two wireless controllers, two base stations, link box, earbuds and Vive accessories. However the user needs to cough up some extra money for the PC, with the manufacturer recommending that the user get their hands on a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060/AMD Radeon RX 480 equivalent (or greater) GPU, an Intel i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent (or greater) CPU, 4GB+ RAM and a Windows 7 SP1 (or newer) operating system.

And for those worried about issues caused by the wires that stretch from the rear of VR headset to the computer processing, Quark VR and Valve have recently partnered to create a wireless version of the headset.

In terms of the Vive and home cinema, it too has been making inroads: The Littlestar VR Cinema is currently listed on Steam as a HTC Vive head-mounted display App and is free of charge to use, making the 360-degree VR content easily attainable.

CE Pro recently got to try out the HTC Vive at London’s Flux Innovation Lounge to watch part of a six-episode Paul McCartney virtual reality documentary series produced by VR start-up, Jaunt. It’s available in Dolby Atmos for Gear VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and CE Pro can attest to its immersiveness – in fact, you might want to sit down to keep balance.

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“The top of the line VR headsets are still expensive,” Amelia Kallman, head of innovation at Flux Lounge tells CE Pro after the demo. “On top of that they require state of the art PCs, which aren’t included. That’s a personal investment that you have to make on top of the headset. But there are dedicated gamers that are willing to spend that kind of money, and I think that getting into it through mobile is how people are going to experience it at first. I think VR absolutely has a place within the cinema world – immersive cinema is something that is becoming a lot more interesting. I think it’s going to catch on way sooner than we thought it was.”

PlayStation VR

sony-playstation-vrSony’s offering could be the headset with the biggest take-up due to one simple fact: it can be used with a PlayStation 4, giving owners the ability to enjoy VR content without having to buy any additional hardware (other than the headset itself). The PlayStation 4 can be found in approximately 40 million homes already, meaning that those desperate for some VR gaming action only need to buy the £349 headset, which went on sale on October 13.

The PlayStation VR has a 5.7-inch, 1920 x 1080 OLED display split vertically to deliver a resolution of 960 x 1080 to each eye, and users can take advantage of Cinematic Mode for more than just gaming. This feature is designed to allow users to play non-virtual reality games inside the headset on a simulated cinema screen available in three sizes: 117 inches, 163 inches and 226 inches – although the middle setting is said to encompass the viewer’s entire field of view.

The biggest option will require the wearer to move their head from side to side to see everything. The smallest option reorients the screen to the user’s head movement, and should the wearer tire of holding up their own head, apparently they can lie down while wearing the headset where it will match the person’s horizontal perspective.

As reported on PlayStationLifestyle.net, playing games without VR support in Cinematic Mode results in a definite loss in fidelity, adding that it didn’t kill the fun factor, however. It is also reported that Cinematic Mode isn’t only compatible with the PlayStation 4; it also works as a HDMI display device and can display anything that is plugged into the Processor Unit. This includes anything from a Blu-ray player to other gaming consoles.

Pushsquare.com also confirmed that both Netflix and BBC iPlayer (along with any other media Apps the user choses) work in Cinematic Mode ‘without an issue,’ due to the fact that the mode essentially replaces the viewer’s TV.

Google Cardboard

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Right at the other end of the spectrum is Google Cardboard, which is a VR platform developed by Google for use with a head mount for a smartphone. Named for its foldout cardboard viewer, users can tap into VR experiences for less than £15. It’s certainly nowhere near being in the same league as the top priced VR headset offerings (it is made out of cardboard, after all), but it is cheap enough to encourage mass take-up; whether it be a new toy for a VR fan to play around with, or a stocking filler to keep the kids entertained at Christmas.

These ‘digital natives’ are the demographic that can make all the difference as to whether a new technology takes off or not, after all. Think about it; if the kids think it’s cool and gain access to the manufacturer’s ‘virtual movie theatre’ for traditional flat screen YouTube videos, then Google Cardboard could be the next must-have.

Let’s face it, they already know how to use your phone better than you: now all they need to do is select an option to watch any video in Google Cardboard, put it in a viewer and watch it on a simulated large screen.

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Not forgetting that Google recently announced Daydream View, a £69 VR headset that works with Daydream-compatible phones. Currently available for pre-order from the Google store, it is the successor to Google Cardboard and already has a list of content partners eager to bring their movie content to Daydream, including IMAX, HBO, Lionsgate and Hulu.

StarVR And Jesus VR

starvrAlthough not as well known, the StarVR VR headset – created by Starbreeze and Acer – is also now shipping, promising 5K resolution and a 210° field of view. Intended for professionals and ‘location-based entertainment markets’ rather than consumers, the manufacturer names IMAX as a partner, with the idea that eventually viewers will be able to ‘step into the movie’ by ‘walking’ into the film afterwards, for a suggested price of more than £19 per movie ticket.

Where Jesus comes into it is via the currently unreleased film Jesus VR – The Story of Christ, which was shown at this year’s Venice Film Festival in the brand new VR theatre. Billed as the ‘first-ever full-length virtual reality film,’ the 90-minute movie was filmed in 360 degrees and shot in 4K, placing the audience as spectators throughout the entire movie. The film will be available on Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard just in time for Christmas this year.

Immersive or Isolating?

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An obvious drawback with VR headsets entering the home cinema sector is the fact that wearers may not want to be ‘immersed’ for the length of a feature film – with it likely that they will find it disorientating, uncomfortable or even isolating.

Oculus, for one, has that covered: Oculus Video will also feature a networked mode in which multiple users can watch the same video in a shared virtual space – seeing each other as avatars, letting them interact and talk to one another while watching the video. And there’s more: Rift also offers the opportunity to view new types of media that it says are impossible to view on regular monitors: 360° 3D videos and ‘virtual reality movies’.

“I think you’ll see many developments in the social aspect of VR moving forward that will ensure users don’t feel secluded,” says Jason. “Oculus Social, which works with Gear VR, allows users to create rooms in which they can hang out with friends in the virtual space and enjoy content together, for instance.”

“I personally believe the social element will be a real focus for virtual reality in the future. We see VR as an accompaniment to home cinema, not as an alternative – they provide unique entertainment experiences, and people can enjoy both depending what mood they’re in. Just like people got used to wearing headphones, having a mobile phone and wearing a smartwatch, I believe that wearing a VR headset will become commonplace in the future.”

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Amelia believes that the technology has a way to go in that respect: “At the moment VR is still an exclusive experience; you can play games with people in the virtual world but you’re not actually communicating with the person sitting next to you – I think that is a bit of a barrier at the moment. That’s why I think that mixed reality is going to play a big part in this because it’s more inclusive in that it allows you to keep the people next to you, to keep your living room, and then have virtual content on top of it. Hopefully that will create more of a communal experience. When it comes to entertainment, part of that experience is enjoying it with somebody else and sharing that experience. I think when the technology moves in that direction it will be a part of cinema.”

“Like any new tech, there is a period of adjustment and I have no doubt that the younger generations will make the transition quicker and easier that the non-digitally native audiences,” Richard muses. “I think with the advent of shared spaces that allow you to join friends in virtual cinema rooms and together, a cinematic experience or watching a film is very exciting indeed. If it remains a solitary experience, users will tire – but it won’t stay singularly.

“Already you can share a space and watch together in VR, and as the technology moves forward the quality of that share (moving from avatars to real representations of people) will make the experience feel totally real. This is less than three years away,” he says confidently.

“The challenge at the moment is getting people to try VR for themselves and experience how great it can be,” Jason nods. “It’s an incredibly exciting time as we’re still at the dawn of the technology, but we’ve already come so far in terms of the content and experiences already available to consumers. There are exciting developments ahead for VR within Samsung as well as the wider industry; I’m looking forward to seeing where we can take the technology next.”

Content and Comfort

It seems that as well as physical comfort, content will be key in order for VR to take off at home. On top of watching movies on a simulated full-sized theatre screen in VR, content-makers are now producing interactive TV and movie experiences to watch through the headsets, making the viewer feel like they’re actually part of the movie or programme.

“It’s great to see how many content creators are really putting user comfort at the front of their minds when making their content,” Jason says. “The rules of how to engage, entertain and truly immerse people in a VR environment are continually being defined, but the quality of content available today is superb.”

“I think it has to be really high quality content; a person has to be very comfortable and be able to come out of it as and when,” Ameila interjects. “The future is being able to add these ‘layers’. I do think it has a little way to go, but I think it’s happening so fast that it’s one of those things that could surpass what we’re used to in terms of flat screens or curved screens. I think it’s developing; it’s coming along.”

But what does everybody’s go-to binge-watching screening service make of this?

In a recent Venture Beat article, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings voiced his concerns on how long people could endure a VR film experience. Currently, users can watch Netflix on Apps available for various VR headsets, but these are not 3D immersive Apps, just straightforward 2D viewing.

“You’re exhausted after 20 minutes,” said Reed, while Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos added: “The problem with VR is that there’s not enough people on the platform to support the investment in that kind of content. I can’t imagine putting on a VR headset while sitting on the couch with my wife for two hours and just disappearing.”

In relation to the estimated 80 million Netflix users out there (imagine the real number if users weren’t sharing accounts), the take-up of VR at home is minuscule. However Reed was quoted at CES as saying that Netflix is “experimenting with things, but we have no concrete plans. It’s a very early phase, so we’re going to learn some things with no commitment other than to have the Netflix TV shows and movies be available within the headsets.” He added that he doesn’t think that VR will have a direct effect on Netflix in the next couple of years.

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For Richard, the benefits of VR and home cinema are a new type of storytelling, a new immersion and a new narrative arc, while the drawbacks lie with it being early stage technology. “In the short term this creates drawbacks in the way it feels to wear the headset; the heat from it, being tethered etc. However these are all short term (between two to three years). As long as the film industry doesn’t give up on it in the short term, there is an exciting future ahead.”

“Definitely,” says Jason, “but at the moment, home cinema provides the stronger cinematic experience because the screen resolution is so advanced. However, this will improve very quickly as VR technology evolves. My view is that VR tech is likely to supplement existing home cinema systems and offer another method of experiencing content rather than replacing it altogether. Each system has its own strengths and provides a completely different entertainment experience. It’s likely that people will utilise VR to view unique content for that platform and will enjoy their existing home cinema for traditional content that they’re comfortable viewing in that medium.”

All signs point to home cinema installers being asked about VR headsets to enhance customers’ home theatre experiences sooner, rather than later. Watch this (VR) space…

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