Is virtual reality the future of entertainment?

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When USC film student Cosmo Scharf proposed a meetup group for Angelenos interested in Virtual Reality (or VR) a few months ago, he was picturing something casual — like some guys sitting around on folding chairs.

But that was before Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg announced he was spending $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, a fledgling company whose sole product is a virtual reality headset that tricks your brain into thinking you’re in outer space, or a medieval dungeon, or sitting across from a friend who’s really two time zones away. For many people in Hollywood, Zuckerberg’s investment made VR look like the next big thing.

So when Virtual Reality LA finally held its first gathering this month, it wasn’t in the back room at a dive bar, but on a high-tech sound stage at visual effects house Digital Domain. And it wasn’t just video game developers and fanboys lining up to strap clunky black goggles onto their faces. Big-time movie and TV producers were there, too.

“This is the night when the VR development community — the enthusiasts and entrepreneurs — and the entertainment community collide, officially,” music video and commercials director Jonnie Ross told the gathering. “We see the potential of VR to change gaming, education, entertainment, communication, design, the Internet itself.”

For Hollywood studios, the new excitement about VR’s potential is tempered by uncertainty about exactly how it might be used – profitably – to entertain the masses. Is VR’s future in the goggles being developed by Oculus, Sony and others, that you’d use at home? Or is immersive entertainment the thing that will finally lure people out of their houses and back into movie theaters?

One problem with both possibilities: the VR experience can leave viewers feeling a little queasy. “My legs felt like rubber for about a day,” recalls “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, who was at the meetup. “It’s very easy to make an audience sick. So they’ve got their work cut out for them.”

Ross thinks rapid improvements in VR technology will iron out existing problems with motion sickness and image quality -– but the new medium may face some resistance nonetheless. “A lot of people aren’t going to want to do it because of the way that it makes you feel, or the fact that it’s not natural,” says Ross. “But what it provides is so potent, and so beautiful in some cases, that it’s undeniable.”

Virtual Reality LA founder Cosmo Scharf (Photo: Gideon Brower)
Second Life founder Philip Rosedale speaks to VR enthusiasts on Digital Domain’s motion-capture sound stage.
The GameFace VR headset is a rival to the Oculus Rift (Photo: Gideon Brower)