Imagine a film that you watch, not on a screen from the comfort of your sofa, but from within the action itself, with your own head movements allowing you to explore the scene. Immersive virtual reality has long been seen as the daydream of scientists, but in 2013 it also became the dream of Antoine Cayrol – at the time head of FatCat, an audio-visual production company.
When he discovered virtual reality he immediately saw its development potential, not for video games, but in the audio-visual domain. He shared this interest with two other associates, and Okio Studio was born. The new company quickly evolved into France’s top producer of this radical new film genre and even became, in Cayrol's own words, one of the three best immersive cinema studios in the world.
A shooting success
Ten months of research and development followed, a barren period that initially involved many "inventors". Did Cayrol ever doubt the commercial viability of virtual reality helmets? The technological development has existed since the 1990s but never taken off.
"Every technological innovation goes through two phases," he explains, "an early phase of commercialisation that ends in failure – the technology isn't complete and the public unclear about what it's for – then a successful phase a few years later. Virtual reality is now entering that second phase."
The events of 2015 back up his argument; it seems to have been the year things really started to grow. First, immersive cinema took off as a concept. It was YouTube that first discovered the potential of this new format. At the beginning of 2015, the video-sharing website came out with YouTube360, a new channel dedicated to 360° content. You don't need a helmet to enjoy it; simply turning your phone in different directions will allow you to explore the image.
This new channel was launched just as 360° cameras started becoming more readily available to consumers. As a result, most of the videos currently available on YouTube360 are the work of amateurs. Right now, one of the most popular videos shows a herd of cows. The cows are so intrigued by the camera that one of them licks it, inadvertently knocking it over. It would seem that the great artists of immersive cinema have yet to be discovered.
But despite the narrative simplicity of the available videos, YouTube360 already has a following. Simply being able to enter the scene of a film – even if its only actors are cows – is tantalising enough to attract an audience.
2015 was also the year that Okio Studios really took off. The financial success of its first commercial productions surpassed the total of all its investments since 2013. But the Parisian studio didn’t stop there. Besides its advertising projects, Okio started working on a made-for-TV film for the Franco-German TV network Arte, with the support of France's Centre National du Cinema. The script is as innovative as the technology. Viewers find themselves inside the head of a robot that looks like Philip K. Dick, the famous American science-fiction writer. Unlike in a video game, viewers experience real life actors and sets.
"Immersive filming" is a fairly difficult process. Firstly, the actors are performing in front of a camera that leaves no blind spots behind which a film crew can hide. Also, any sudden movements of the camera must be avoided, since they are liable to make viewers nauseous. Besides these practical considerations, immersive cinema obliges us to rethink the entire concept of narrative structure: film frames don't exist, and the finished product can no longer consist of a series of brief shots, edited together.
However Okio has decided to approach these challenges, the distribution of its made-for-TV movie in February of 2016 will be an important step in the company's development. But what happens next? Now that the first heroic pioneering steps have been taken, what kind of future can we predict for this new and different way of making films?
Antoine Cayrol isn't worried about the future. According to him, the history of our relationship with screens follows one simple rule: every new technological development brings us a little bit closer to the screen. "First it was cinema, then television, and finally smartphones," he explains, "Helmets are a logical next step."
Björk in your living room
For now, according to Cayrol, works of fiction won't be the biggest attraction. Instead the producer is betting, for the next few years at least, on music. More and more concerts and music videos, such as Björk's, are being released as 360° videos. Cayrol also expects another major area of development to be the advertising sector. Luxury brands, especially high-end cars, are already showing interest.
Björk - Stonemilker (in 360°)
Long-term, he predicts that by 2020 immersive videos will be everywhere, and people will be using them regularly. The film industry itself is beginning to show real, if reserved, interest in this new type of cinema.
"It's still in the early stages," he notes, "But American filmmakers like Spielberg have begun investing in the sector in case it proves to be successful." In fact, the first cinema equipped with helmets has just opened in Los Angeles.
Though the producer doesn't necessarily connect immersive cinema's future with helmets. Other equipment could eventually create a more pleasant and efficient experience. As an example, he mentions Microsoft's Hololens, which is meant, among other things, to convert any living room into nothing less than a 360° cinema.
For now, there is no guarantee that hanging out with holograms in the sitting room will soon be a part of our daily lives. People may get tired of such a "disruptive" technology, producers may not be able to sustain current growth patterns, or perhaps new technological breakthroughs will come along to take immersive cinema's place in the spotlight. But to our surprise and delight, the laws of innovation and commercial success it has brought to light keep on being out of this world.