Goodbye, passive viewing. Soon, every moviegoer will be a player.
The New York Times Sunday Review ⎢ June 23, 2013
Paramount Television, via Everett Collection
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard (Patrick Stewart) takes Jono (Chad Allen) to play a form of racquetball on the ship’s holodeck.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, at a symposium at the University of Southern California film school, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted the collapse of most megabudget movies, and with it the end of Hollywood as it now exists. This sounds like bad news for popcorn sellers. But Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg had intriguing ideas about what might come next.
Mr. Lucas predicted that blockbusters would eventually become big-ticket events, like ballgames and Broadway plays, and that the rest of the movie business would migrate to online video — a trend that’s already begun to happen.
Mr. Spielberg offered a more radical vision. At a time of ubiquitous screens — video, movie and computer — he predicted an end to on-screen entertainment. Instead, he said he thought we’d have a kind of enveloping, wraparound entertainment.
“We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen,” Mr. Spielberg said. “We’ve got to get rid of that and put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional experience. That’s the future.”
Though most people treat screens as a window, Mr. Spielberg seems to understand them as a barrier, one that prevents viewers — now “players” — from being fully, actively engaged in their entertainment.
The idea of immersive entertainment — in which you can lose yourself and in which the line between fiction and reality blurs — isn’t new at all. And its impact can be disorienting.
The title character in Cervantes’s 17th-century satire, Don Quixote, went tilting at windmills, for example, because he had immersed himself in the practice of reading. “He read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity.” Quixote’s endearing madness suggests the degree to which art in general and reading in particular might literally derange one’s faculties.
Centuries later, Orson Welles showed that radio could have similarly disturbing powers. When Welles broadcast a live radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds in 1938, thousands of listeners believed Martians had actually invaded New Jersey. Despite repeated announcements that the radio play was fiction, panicked listeners phoned police stations, rushed into churches to pray, even volunteered to take up arms. Some listeners packed their belongings and prepared to evacuate.
Today, of course, losing oneself in a book or broadcast is familiar and feels safe and even old-fashioned. And immersive entertainment has moved into the realm of video games and beyond, making strides in the direction Mr. Spielberg envisions.
The most advanced immersive entertainment on the horizon now may be the Oculus Rift, a strap-on virtual-reality headset. Virtual reality, a catchall term for digital simulations that can be experienced with goggles, earphones and, in some cases, gloves, enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 1980s; now, with far more advanced computer capabilities, it seems on the verge of a comeback. To demonstrate the Oculus Rift’s capacity, developers created a “guillotine simulator” that, even in its primitive form, seems to be a big — frightening — hit with those who have tried it. Twist your neck and you see crowds of spectators; look down and you see the basket waiting for your head. But at the end of the day, you’re just lying there with a box strapped to your face, staring into a pair of screens.
No one has yet managed to invent a technology that dispenses with screens entirely, as Mr. Spielberg envisions. But Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek, offered a blueprint for this kind of entertainment in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the 1987 follow-up to his original series. In the pilot episode, the first officer of the Starship Enterprise enters the ship’s “holodeck,” a chamber specially outfitted to project a holographic simulation of reality; the first officer, for example, walks into the room and experiences a verdant woodland.
The fictional holodeck in Star Trek didn’t depend entirely on holographic illusion; it also relied on fanciful “matter replicators” capable of transforming energy into a chair you could sit in or tea you could drink. Thanks to sophisticated programming, it provided an extraordinary range of entertainment possibilities for the Enterprise crew: they could, for example, enjoy a simulated ride on the Orient Express or fight a simulated Battle of the Alamo.
Life-size holograms and energy-to-matter converters are probably a ways off. For the moment, the closest we have come to a holodeck-like experience may be immersive theater.
Sleep No More and Then She Fell are two current theatrical productions that dispense with the traditional stage and dissolve the barrier between performer and viewer. Instead, the audience interacts directly with the characters in the play.
It is not surprising that such productions have been called “theater for the video game generation.” They combine the first person engagement of video games like Grand Theft Auto and BioShock with the warmth and emotional engagement of flesh-and-blood interactions.
In Sleep No More, which is presented in a series of interconnected rooms, it is viscerally engaging to stand a few feet away as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hurl each other against the walls, or later as Macbeth cringes naked in a bloody bathtub. It feels personal and intimate in a way that conventional plays or movies cannot — and in a way that digital simulations can’t either.
In that sense, the future Mr. Spielberg imagined is already here — at least in a limited way that is available just to a small group of people who can attend the performances. Now, if we just had some technology that would scale things up. Mr. Spielberg, we’re ready. ■
Frank Rose is the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.