Why I Only Watch Movies in Virtual Reality

Back in April, after months of trying to get the Product Hunt office a VR headset, I was excited to learn that Mark Zuckerberg was going to give one, as a gift.

In the weeks that followed… I tried every app in the Oculus Store that looked interesting: lots games (GunJack is pretty cool), meditation apps, and even Facebook 360 videos sort of look cool in virtual reality. Although it wasn’t until I tried Oculus Theater, and forked over the $9.99 to watch Avatar in 3D, that VR became something I use regularly.

Virtual Reality Will Replace Your TV

I’m not much of a gamer, but binge watching House of Cards — that is something I could get into. At this time last year I had never seen a Tarantino film or an episode of The West Wing, but now Quentin is my favorite director and Sorkin’s political drama is the best show that was ever on TV. From start to finish, I’ve watched it all in virtual reality.

In the last nine months, almost all movies and shows I watched were in virtual reality.

For watching content, the cheap $99 headset completely replaced my laptop, iMac, and living room TV. No matter where I happened to be, the Gear VR and Android phone without SIM became my go-to entertainment system. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Watching a movie in VR is like having your own personal IMAX Theater
  2. You have to focus on the content (there are no distractions)

The Ideal Viewing Experience, Anywhere.

Why watch a two-hour action packed thriller on your laptop when it was meant to be watched in an IMAX screen? Similarly, you wouldn’t pull out your phone to watch the next episode of Daredevil if you’re sitting on the couch in front of a big flatscreen TV.

Netflix’s Virtual Living Room

Today we watch exactly the content we want to watch, on our time, and wherever we happen to be. Consider this: you’re more likely to watch the season finale of your Netflix binge from the airport, on your phone, with 20% battery and one AirPod in-ear, than wait 8 hours to get home so you can enjoy it on the larger TV screen.

The ideal viewing experience has been replaced by a pair of headphones and the closest available screen.

We optimize for convenience, over an $8,000 “4K Ultra HD LED LCD TV” any day of the week.

What virtual reality did for me, was provide the ideal viewing experience for the specific content, from wherever I happened to be. I watched Apollo 13 while sitting on the Moon and flying over over the Atlantic. I’ve watched movies at night on the train, in the hot tub, and in broad daylight on my roof in San Francisco — with no glare on the screen. In VR you get the ideal viewing environment no matter your surroundings.

The most common viewing environment… is similar.

The living room. There is nothing inherently wrong with sitting on your couch watching Netflix in your living room. Maybe there are people talking or there’s too much sunlight on the screen, but it’s good enough. So why strap a phone to your head and tune out the rest of the world for a virtual living room?

There Are No Distractions In Virtual Reality

Not an ideal viewing experience on any of the devices, particularly the TV

VR provides the ideal viewing environment, but for me, the real benefit is being removed from external distractions (read: not being able to reach for your phone every minute). This plays a huge factor in what I’ve gotten out of movies and TV shows, particularly more in-depth scripts (like Tarantino’s).

Getting distracted was a big problem for me (and others, apparently).

It doesn’t matter if it’s the season finale of Game of Thrones or a movie that I’ve always wanted to see — in the battle for my attention, the second screen always wins. The constant habit of checking Twitter and Facebook, sending a text, refreshing the sea of apps on the homescreen… the search for that next dopamine hit always wins.

I would just lose the plot without noticing and have to go back to the beginning of a 40 minute episode 30 minutes in way too frequently. Putting the phone away would last for a 10 minute interval. Rewind. Repeat.

It’s not about watching a movie from start to finish, it’s about getting a fuller appreciation for the film.

We’re asked to put our phones away at the theater. Everyone checks it, occasionally, but the social pressure of not blinding the person next to you with a bright screen works well enough to keep the distraction to a limit. We’re still able to keep up with the plot, catch the jokes, the hidden meanings, and be swayed by the score, the director’s choice of camera angles, you know, normal paying attention things... But there are many little details that go into a film, and I’ve found that in virtual reality, with undecided attention, it’s easier to catch and appreciate those little details and artistic choices that go into making a film.


Quick Thoughts

  1. Screen quality will only get better

The quality of a virtual screen in a virtual living room is not (yet) at the level of an $8,000 4K HD TV. From my experience, and personal opinion, blocking out the distractions is far more important for the overall enjoyment of what you are watching. It’s why most of the movies I’ve watched in VR are from the 1960’s to 2000’s — catching up on all the classics I have never seen. Those films weren’t shot in high definition, so it makes little difference. That said…

2. With 3D movies VR is winning

Where VR does provide a much nicer (and more comfortable) viewing expirience, in a direct comparison to IMAX, is 3D movies.

I’m not a big fan of 3D movies.

The cheap glasses are never positioned right, admission is more expensive, and personally I just don’t see the big difference. In VR, however, 3D movies are my favorite. It’s completely controlled environment and no (additional) headset. In other words, you see the visual effects correctly, which makes 3D movies look STUNNING.

3. The cost and reality of owning a TV

It’s quite likely that I will never buy another TV. In college dorms TVs are virtually non-existent. You may have a monitor that connects to your laptop screen, but a big, non-portable, expensive television for your bedroom or living room is a thing of the past —which is why a more direct comparison for the $99 Gear VR viewing expirience is a 4 to 6 inch smartphone display or a laptop screen (rather than an $8,000 TV).

4. Augmented Reality

I do think that augmented reality screens will be the way we watch content in a few years. You’ll be able to overlay on top of the real world however many screens you want, in an instant. The innovation in AR is at the very beginning, and the content will not be limited to a 2-dimensional (virtual) screen.

AR use cases, while overlapping with VR, will be quite different. AR is about overlaying virtual objects in the real-world, while VR puts you in a world that is different world— which today (in the context of this post) looks like a movie theater, that has the effect of immersing you in a film.

5. Social VR is going to be big

Social VR is a fairly new thing and I am less familiar with it, but the concept of being able to watch movies together with friends — or strangers — from anywhere in the world is pretty awesome and it’s already here. 🍿😜