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The Oculus Rift Will Work for Movies, Too. Eventually.

The people who make movies will have to rethink a few things first.

Condition One

First, I’m flying by a space station. Then, I’m in a Middle Eastern war zone, watching troops respond to a local crisis. Finally, I’m back at E3 2013, braving the sweaty, nerdy crowds.

Simply shot and without much story behind them, these filmed vignettes would normally make for ho-hum entertainment. But I recently had the chance to experience them all in virtual reality, running on an Oculus Rift prototype, and I confess — I was there.

When the space station passed over my ahead, I turned around to look at it. When a gun fired in the distance in the Middle Eastern scene, I turned my head in the direction of the sound. And, after failing to spot myself in the E3 video (the camera didn’t come by the Starbucks line), I winced ever so slightly as passers-by stopped and looked at me.

They weren’t actually gawking at me, of course, but rather at Condition One CEO Danfung Dennis and one of his colleagues, walking slowly through the crowds while wielding VR-ready cameras and technology the startup plans to unveil this year at GDC in San Francisco. Condition One’s team of eight hopes to both make movies for the Oculus Rift and, in time, license out its video engine for making filmed worlds that surround the viewer.

“We’re really preparing for this year as the big year to get ready for when the wave breaks,” Dennis said in an interview with Re/code. “I think this market’s going to be much bigger and emerge much more quickly than most people anticipate. … We hope to kind of emerge as leaders in immersive movies.”

The Rift is still only available as a prototype for developers, with no consumer release date yet announced. But Dennis’ company plans to release a short film about virtual reality, playable in virtual reality — whoa — this spring, and a longer film once the consumer version is definitely on the way.

Making a virtual world that feels “right” in VR has challenged game developers to improvise best practices as they go along, and it’s even harder in live-action movies.

How do you focus the audience’s attention? Where does the crew go? What happens when viewers look down and don’t see their own bodies moving? How do scene changes work? How fast can the camera move, and in what directions can it move, without making people feel sick?

All good questions without good answers yet, Dennis acknowledges.

“For the last 100 years of cinema, we’ve been selecting exactly what frames the audience is going to see,” he said. “In this environment, the audience is inside of the frame. … As a cinematographer, it’s all gone. The frame is just how you composed the story. That’s gone.”

Plus, for whatever disadvantages flat screens have, they work as a distribution medium because movies don’t need to change whether they’re being watched by one person or hundreds. Like the release date, the consumer Rift’s price has not yet been announced, but Oculus is aiming for something in the ballpark of $300 per headset. That’s a steep price for each additional screen.

Despite those unanswered questions, Dennis argues that there’s more than just a wow factor in virtual reality movies. Having covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a photojournalist, he expressed frustration with the distance between viewer and image or movie.

“[My] images were published pretty widely, but they weren’t able to convey what was happening there,” he said. “They were just these glimpses into that world, and I wanted to bring people into it, to let them witness it first-hand.”

He’s not shy, either, about the potential he sees in VR movies for changing social and political attitudes, ranging from eating meat to grasping climate change to seeing the real effects of war. It’s a process he describes as teaching viewers empathy.

“If you bring people into the front lines of climate change, they can understand, ‘Oh, these are the consequences of my daily actions,'” Dennis said. “It seems like a small drop when we already have access to all the information that’s available in our pockets. We have everything. We could access it if we wanted to. I don’t think it’s a lack of information that’s the problem behind large global issues. It’s the lack of experience with them. It’s the combination of information and experience that can change individual behavior.”

An interactive 3-D trailer for Condition One’s VR-themed short film, Zero Point, is available here (use your mouse to look around). Or, you can watch the normal flat version below.

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