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The Coolest Thing I Saw at CES? A Movie Clip.

Watching a virtual-reality promo of the film “Wild” on a Gear VR headset kind of blew my mind.
January 8, 2015

Aside from drones, wearables, and connected pet feeders, one of the coolest things I saw this week at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a video promo related to the recently released movie “Wild,” which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s solitary hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. What made the few minutes of video so neat was that I was watching it in virtual reality on a Gear VR headset–a device created by Oculus VR and Samsung that allowed me to feel like I was watching the drama unfold from within the center of movie itself.

If that sounds nutty, it was even nuttier to experience. Basically, once I started up the clip, called “Wild-The Experience,” the world around me transformed into a peaceful woodsy setting: a clearing surrounded by tall trees, with a blue sky overhead. I appeared to be sitting on a rock (in reality, I was sitting in a white swivel chair in Samsung’s CES booth), though when I looked down I didn’t seem to have any legs touching the dirt-packed forest floor.

After a few seconds, a hiker came into view; it was “Wild” star Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, walking in my direction, looking exhausted in shorts and a t-shirt, carrying a large backpack. Ignoring me, she stopped at a rock just to my left to rest and grab a drink of water, and suddenly seemed to be looking at me with surprise. I quickly realized she wasn’t actually making eye contact with me, but with someone else who must have appeared while I was observing her. Slightly freaked out, I turned to my right and saw actress Laura Dern, who plays Strayed’s mother in the film and at this point would have to be just a figment of Strayed’s imagination.

I couldn’t help but keep turning back and forth between the two characters; the resolution wasn’t incredible and I was disembodied between them, but it felt real and they seemed about the right scale to be there with me. Though the experience lasted just a few minutes, it was enough to give me a sense of the potential for immersive virtual-reality experiences beyond gaming, which still seems to be the most talked-about and obvious application for this emerging technology.

At this stage of development, I don’t think I’d want to watch a full-length movie this way, but it could be a really cool way to watch short films or create hybrid movie/games like the flicksyncs in “Ready Player One.” I’m curious to see how it advances this year–Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox’s home entertainment business (Fox Searchlight Pictures made “Wild”), reportedly expects to sell virtual-reality clips related to Fox movies by late 2015. And hopefully we’ll soon get a look at other similarly immersive content as developers share their work on the Oculus site, and as more content is added to Samsung’s new Milk VR.

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