The film world has been playing with virtual reality since the first Oculus Rift development kit, from concerts to feature-length films to now-ubiquitous promotional tie-ins. One of the geekier takes on this is Zero Point, a documentary for the Oculus Rift... about the Oculus Rift. More generally, it's about the promise and loosely defined peril of virtual reality, with appearances from Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey and noted VR researchers Jeremy Bailenson (founder of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab) and Mark Bolas (director of USC's Mixed Reality Lab and Luckey's former employer.) The roughly 20-minute film is directed by Danfung Dennis, known for war documentary Hell and Back Again, and optimized for virtual reality with tech from his film and video startup Condition One. And as of today, anyone with a PC, an Oculus Rift, and $9.99 can watch it.
Zero Point isn't particularly revelatory or engrossing as a film. Luckey and Bailenson in particular have spoken frequently and at length about the future of virtual reality, and it doesn't really delve deep into any aspect of the technology or its social implications. The star, instead, is Condition One's footage, a mix of wide-angle video, 360-degree panoramas, and fully spherical shots from places like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Electronic Entertainment Expo. "As our camera technology rapidly evolved, the footage also evolved," says Dennis. "During production we experimented with different types of camera systems to create the optimal VR experience. We see the film as an experiment, a stake in the ground, as to the state of 3D 360-degree video in VR and it is intended for developers and VR enthusiasts."
This is a movie for VR nerds
That's pretty accurate. Zero Point feels like an admittedly beautiful tech demo, playing around with what you can do in VR film. It's not interactive beyond allowing you to move your head, and it's mostly a series of vignettes, but the best shots are genuinely beautiful. At one point, I stood on a beach, watching the ocean as a woman holding a champagne flute approached me. I stared down, marveling at the brightly lit, perfectly unmarked sand where my feet would have been. The Oculus Rift is a niche product that's often difficult to use, though, and the chance of someone picking up Zero Point without a strong existing interest in VR seems slight.
With that in mind, it's an interesting early example of what we could soon see in more polished work. If you want to be cliche, virtual reality is still in the era of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the short film that (probably fictional) legend says was so immersive it drove audiences out of theaters screaming. But at the very least, Zero Point is trying to look beyond the VR headset as a "personal IMAX," and we get to see how well its experiments are playing out.