Is Insurgent's Shatter Reality VR ride the future of film?

Oculus Rift

Now I know what it feels like when Kate Winslet zaps me in the back with a medical probe.

On a cold night last week in New York, an enormous truck – not a van, or a camper, but a vehicle of the sort that normally transports goods across state lines – sat parked on one of the trendier blocks in SoHo. It was the press preview for Insurgent: Shatter Reality, a virtual reality experience for Samsung Gear VR. The four-minute experience will travel around New York City (look for it near the Flatiron building) then hit Navy Pier in Chicago, the Grove in Los Angeles, Pier 39 in San Francisco and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. It won’t just be of interest to fans of the popular Divergent series (now readying the release of its second film, Insurgent), but also to people who like to stay abreast of new technology.

Truth be told, Insurgent: Shatter Reality isn’t so impressive itself as for what it represents: we will be seeing more and more exhibitions attached to films.

This isn’t the first time the new medium of virtual reality has been used as a marketing tool for a known entertainment property. A 60-second experience “atop the wall” was part of a travelling Game of Thrones exhibit. But to hear the publicists at last night’s event tell it, this is the first that has an actual story. The word “story” is a bit of a stretch, but there is a beginning, middle and end. It goes like this.

First, you strap the headgear to your face. As someone who needs glasses (and needs them badly), I had to crank the eye relief all the way to one side to get the image in focus. It was still a little blurry, but far better than the last time I tried anything similar, which was a helmeted video game, about 10 years ago. You also put on headphones, and since these were a quality pair, not the junky ones I toss in my rucksack, I soon found myself in total silence and darkness.

Kate Winslet and some guy I didn’t recognise appear in a futuristic room. They are talking to me, but I’m not paying attention because I’m busy moving my head around. If you turn away from Kate, you hear her but don’t see her. Hey, this is really neat! Is this really a 360-degree experience? Indeed it is.

I turn all the way around and look behind me to see the back wall. I look up to see the ceiling. I look down and see “my” legs, and wow! I’ve been on a diet! Man, I haven’t looked this trim in ages. I love virtual reality!

So, Kate and her friend – who, if my memory of the quite unimpressive Divergent serves me, are the heads of the evil, cerebral Erudite faction. You, by which I mean me (by which I also mean the protagonist Tris, played by Shailene Woodley), are a Divergent (aha!), meaning you fit into no clan, but your sympathies lie with the rugged, do-it-yourselfers in Dauntless because they jump on and off trains like every day is the opening to West Side Story.

Anyway, Kate hooks you up to the machine, which means these plugs fly in your face and reach around to your back and then the chair vibrates at pressure points. I gasped and giggled. All this high-end technology and still nothing beats an old William Castle gag.

You are then set to three tests. First, you sit perched on a high building as Mekhi Phifer sends digital birds flying towards you. In the “real world”, air is lightly blasted in your face. I didn’t see any hoses when I sat down, but I’m pretty sure this was part of the show, not just some joker breathing on me. You do a thing where you zoom down the side of the building (whoooooaaaaaaa!), and then, after Miles Teller talks to you for a while (again, didn’t really pay attention – was more interested in swerving my head around and looking at the digital space), a train comes and smashes into you.

Kate Winslet comes back to (I think) congratulate you for being brave. I apologise for being vague. It all went by so very quickly and Lionsgate Films had given me a few glasses of wine before strapping me down, while the headgear made taking notes impossible. I don’t think even the most ardent fan of Veronica Roth’s novels will be into this for the plot points.

At four minutes and no charge (to the public, as well as press), I absolutely recommend it. But is virtual reality truly the next great art form? Ikrima Elhassan and Cory Strassburger, the filmmakers/programmers from Kite & Lightning, certainly think so. They are two of virtual reality’s leading “experience creators”, as they half-jokingly call themselves, and they are very bullish about their company’s future. A movie tie-in gig like this is a great way, they say, to continue working on original content that they and others will soon be bringing direct to consumers.

“In five years?” I ask. “More like one year!” Elhassan claimed.

The three major platforms, Oculus Rift (owned by Facebook), Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR are about to become ubiquitous, and soon you will be able to rent or buy experiences, such as Kite & Lightning’s short Sensa Pezo, like any other piece of downloadable content.

“As with any new media,” Elhassan continued, “we first think of it in relation to the old. But soon we’ll have stories that can only be done in VR. Interactivity and response, that will be huge.”

“There are so many crazy experiences we want to do, but, you know, we’re not all king of a country,” Strassburger says. “With VR you can suddenly be in Cirque du Soleil.”

The pair were quick to say that they were not actively pitching Cirque du Soleil, nor would they dish on which upcoming movies would have similar marketing tie-ins. But common wisdom in the room was “it’s happening”.

My colleagues and I were spitballing what the inevitable Star Wars experience would be like. All agreed that so long as you get to be Chewbacca, it can be anything.

Powered by article was written by Jordan Hoffman, for on Monday 2nd March 2015 20.52 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010