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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Cinematic VR is here to stay as consumers demand an immersive experience

The cost of a high-quality VR headset has crashed from $1,500 in 2018 to $300 now

It is a regular working Tuesday in 2025. Rahul boards his customary fast train from Virar to Bandra. Rushing in while the train is still arriving at the station, he settles for the nearest corner seat. In a practised motion, he switches his backpack from the back to the front, pulls out his Oculus Megaview360 and slips it over his eyes. For the next 30 minutes, he watches the next episode of The Stranger Gangs of Mirzapur—a VR series about a human-alien mafia war. Several times during that half-hour journey, his elbows and shoulders bump into his neighbour’s as he turns and twists his body, looking around in the VR experience. The neighbour, a first-year medical student, doesn’t care about the bumping as he too is watching his own VR experience—a revision class about how the vascular system interacts with the body’s muscular system.

Historically, we have been consuming content on three platforms: Cinema since the 1880s, television since the 1930s and, digital, on computers since the 2000s, and mobiles since the 2010s. The fourth and latest addition is VR, or virtual reality.

Today’s consumers are no longer satisfied with just the availability of content, but seek a content consumption ‘experience’, which is much more than just audio-visual narrative content. They want to ‘feel’ more, and be a part of the content. The market has responded to this demand by inventing and, in some cases, reinventing technologies to enable this. Virtual and augmented reality, computer vision and machine learning are some examples. VR has undoubtedly become the fourth platform—one which provides for a more immersive and experiential content ‘experience’. While being around since the 1960s for utilitarian purposes, such as simulations, training and drilling, VR has now become a mainstream platform for content.

But, with cinema, TV and digital, is there scope for a fourth content platform? The answer is YES.

We have had such scepticism in the past, too, when TV and digital content emerged with several ‘experts’ predicting the demise of theatres and TV. None of that happened. Cinema and TV actually grew and flourished in the digital age. Each new platform brought with itself a new content format and, while there was some overlap of content between the older and newer platforms, in essence, they all had their space.

The fourth platform of VR has also given birth to a new kind of content—‘immersive’ content, which will give the viewer a heightened sense of reality, induced by immersion.

While the requirement of a VR headset is the one impediment to mass adoption, the immersive impact of the content far outweighs it. We have multiple surveys from all over the world, which tell us that existing consumers of VR were more likely to consume movies, events and sports in VR by up to 30% as compared to those who were not existing VR consumers, indicating that the experience, even in a yet-to-be-perfected technology pipeline, was good enough for people to want more.

The path taken by cinematic VR between 2016 and 2019 has mirrored the steps of digital content between 2010 and 2013—both in technology and content. Just compare your own digital content consumption experience in 2013—before 4G, large smartphones, OLED retina displays with blue-light filter and quality sound—to now, and then try to extrapolate how VR content consumption will get better over the next half-a-decade.

Today, we already have multiple specialized cinematic VR content creators and studios creating hundreds of hours of content every month. Most international film festivals have large pavilions dedicated to VR content, each showcasing hundreds of pieces. Cinematic VR is now a standard component of the filmmaking curricula of all global top-tier film schools.

Professional, prosumer and consumer-grade 360 cameras are easily available and do not cost much. The cost of a high-quality VR headset has crashed from $1,500 in 2018 to $300 in 2020. These are all clear signs that cinematic VR is here to stay.

In 2012, it would have been considered incredulous that someone could watch an entire movie on their phone on their daily train journey to work and back. That is commonplace now. Similarly, the time is not too far when one sees a significant number of train travellers turning around in their seats, experiencing VR content. And, maybe, the railways will actually install swivel seats in trains. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Chaitanya Chinchlikar is vice-president and chief technology officer at Whistling Woods International.

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