VR cinemas could soften the ground for further adoption. Source: Samhoud

VR cinemas reimagines film theater experience for the masses

VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) could be coming to a cinema near you – or rather a wholly reimagined cinema concept that includes headsets and a rotating menu of VR content that would bring you immersive experiences without the exorbitant costs.

Beijing’s stock of physical VR experience centers, or “cinemas” as Yue Cheng Technology’s Cedric Garcia calls them, are cropping up all over mainland China. Today, around 12,000 of these centers exist all over the country, and they play a huge role in moving along the acceptance of the technology in everyday life.

According to a Tech in Asia interview with various VR players, the emergence of these cinemas are absolutely integral to filling the gap between VR’s potential and its current state in limbo.

“Offline experience centers have become an important way to educate the VR market,” said Men Yuxiao, an analyst at Chinese research firm iResearch, to Tech in Asia. “They can accelerate the development of the entire VR industry.”

A man tests a virtual reality (VR) headset at a convention for gaming. Source: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

VR is no more than a novelty technology right now, partly because of the significant cost factor involved. Quality headsets such as the Oculus Rift require investments of around US$450, which isn’t likely going to entice the casual VR enthusiast. Furthermore, there’s a perception that VR is mainly geared towards gamers because of its interactivity. However, a culture of VR cinema could flip both the medium and our preconceived notions about how we experience on their heads.

Hussain Currimbhoy, the director of documentary programming for the Sundance Film Festival, told Tech Wire Asia during an interview in August:

“To me, VR is its own art form that is separate from traditional 2D film. VR is evolving quickly and is already developing its own visual language,”

“The technology makes a story interactive. Audiences can feel like they are engaged with their bodies and minds when experiencing a story in VR. Film has not been able to deliver that in a meaningful way.”

“All the VR cinemas [in China] are fairly new,” said Garcia to Tech in Asia. Garcia is the head of content for Yue Cheng, which opened two VR cinemas in the Chinese capital this year.

He said it was critical that a groundswell of VR film infrastructure exists if the region ever truly wanted to get somewhere with the medium. The majority of the world’s VR innovations and content are focused in the West, largely because the technology there is far more widespread.

According to experts, physical venues are important as they give the everyday user access and exposure to VR content for just the price of a ticket. If the tech gains enough ground, it could help create a burst of interest in the tech which could consequently lower costs for the hardware. The US$7 billion global VR industry is still riddled with issues of high costs with regards to its hardware and content software, making it difficult for creators to profit off their work.

Conversely, potential VR enthusiasts may not be convinced by existing VR offerings to really make any significant investment. The chicken-and-egg problem has locked the industry in stasis, but having actual cinemas could change all that.

The VR Cinema

The VR Cinema was a pioneer in bringing the technology to the masses in a traditional theater-like space. Source: The VR Cinema

There are several innovators who are looking into what exactly a VR cinema could look like. Yue Cheng’s VR cafe relies on beverage purchases to fund its free VR programming, while its fancier cinema-like venue issues day passes that cost around US$5-US$12 for an average of four to five shows a day.

The Dutch pioneer, The VR Cinema, looks more like what you’d imagine a traditional cinema would look like, minus the screen and darkness. Shanghai’s X-Cube is housed within a typical movie theater, seats only seven per space, and charged US$3-US$4.50 per film.

The biggest hurdle is, of course, the limitations of space and equipment. VR headsets are expensive, and it’s generally not possible to seat the couple hundred that traditional cinemas can accommodate. That fact has a downward pressure on potential earnings, not to mention the fact that VR films don’t tend to run for very long.


Virtual reality needs better content to attract users, but some developers aren’t convinced by the current offerings to go further. Source: Shutterstock

VR cinemas can’t afford to play the same movies every week, making it even more difficult to gain any real traction by word of mouth or bring any real variety to the kinds of films they showcase. Cinemas often resort to picking the best films, meaning that they’ll likely not be able to cater to a diverse audience with a variety of tastes.

However, the industry is still making strides: headsets are set to dramatically drop in cost as cheaper offerings from Oculus and Google are about the enter the market. Furthermore, the acceptance of the medium by film festival organizers is helping the content gain exposure all across the world. In recent years, festivals from Tribeca to Sundance to the Venice Biennale have begun running VR programming, though it’s still largely relegated to a novelty piece.

But if VR cinemas can help soften the ground in mainstream culture and normalize the form a bit more, there’s potential for VR films and storytelling to really take off. There’s a long way to go but the potential rewards are there.