When will we see the first VR blockbuster movie?

Ready Player One's spectacular VR OASIS experience has us wondering how achievable it really is and when we'll start seeing immersive VR movies.

A couple of years ago, Elon Musk stunned an audience, and the world, with his belief that there’s just a “one in billions” chance that we’re not living in a massive simulation a la The Matrix. Respected astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson agreed. The reaction was intense, with a handful of experts shouting “me, too,” another handful saying “nope,” some, such as Bill Nye, asking how we could ever know, and the rest of us more than a little freaked out. Now, though, with the unveiling of the eye-popping OASIS virtual-reality (VR) world in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a lot of people are asking, “Where’s my simulated reality?” While Ready Player One is fiction, many are wondering if something like OASIS is possible, if not as a place to live, at least as entertainment. If so, when will we see our first immersive VR movie?

(Warner Bros.)

Short answer: Not soon. The technology’s not there yet, and there are some intriguing creative issues to be decided as well, including some very basic ones. For example, where’s the dividing line between a game and a movie? Does a game involve interaction with the virtual world while a movie is viewed passively? There was a period not too long ago when Hollywood experimented with interactive movies where audiences would vote on characters’ behaviors and thus “write” the film’s outcome. Nobody cared. If a movie is a passive experience, does the viewer move through it, requiring a sense of motion and interaction with VR objects, or remain stationary?

It’s likely any such entertainment would need to be VR, and not augmented reality, AR, which intertwines with physical reality, for reasons of creative control. It would be so much harder to sustain the effect of standing on the scorching side of a fictional volcano, for example, if the family cat suddenly wandered in.

The tech side of the question

Big Problem One: bandwidth

Experts agree that current internet bandwidth is far too limited to deliver the requisite humongous amounts of data to homes across the globe. Akamai’s 2017 State of the Internet found that the average internet speed is 7.2 Mbps (Megabytes per second). Even a low-resolution 360° version of VR, the kind supported by current headsets, demands at least 25 Mbps. To match the resolution of HD TV, you’re talking 80-100 Mbps, and to achieve 4K quality, each connection would have to provide 600 Mbps of bandwidth. If 75% of the earth is connected, you need to multiply that figure by 5.5 billion.

Those figures represent delivery of a fully detailed 360° view, which isn’t what Ready Player One shows. Instead, it depicts “micro worlds” full-scale rendering only of objects and characters near to the viewer. The key is finding the most workable “Level of Detail.” This approach cuts down bandwidth requirements significantly and is already the way multiplayer games such as Destiny operate.

Experts believe the internet will become far faster over time, but that’s a lot of data to move in any event, so we’ll have to wait and see if we get there.

Big Problem Two: server processing speed

Any lag in response time or visuals in VR breaks the illusion that you’re really there, and there’s a tremendous amount of data to be processed at the server level. The servers will not only be feeding content to each player but also receiving interactive content from them — if we’re talking about interactive VR movies — and then combine it all in a believable way before spitting it back out to all participants near-instantaneously. And with millions, billions, of participants, obviously this is a massive processing challenge. It can be partially solved by sending, receiving, and crunching only what’s changed at any given moment as a sort of update to data the participants have already received.

Processors are getting faster all the time, of course, but they’ve got a way to go to be able to accomplish this feat without a disruptive lag.

Virtual reality cameras?

Well, at least this is unlikely to be a problem. VR worlds will likely either be completely computer-generated or digitized from standard video and something like the motion-capture technology that’s currently so popular and that has already been delivering VR characters for some time.

Feeling like it’s real

Goggles are rapidly improving, so a sense of movement looks doable in the near future. Companies are developing omnidirectional treadmills like the one trod by the Ready Player One’s lead human.

(Vitruix Omni)

Sensory, or “haptic,” feedback in the form of the gloves and suits worn by players in Ready Player One seem plausible, too. Haptic gloves exist already, and one company, Teslasuit (no relation, and trademark suit likely inevitable), is bringing to market a full-body haptic suit that resembles those in Ready Player One.

Hey, VR baby (Teslasuit)

Far harder to get right is “interactional synchrony,” a phrase used by Jeremy Bailenson in his book, Experience on Demand. It’s the process of accurately discerning and responding to others’ non-verbal cues. He tells Gizmodo, that “body movements—subtle shifts in posture, eye-gaze, and gestures—not only dance to the rhythms of speech but they also perform in reaction to the movements of others. In fact, these movements, both subtle and obvious, are correlated between people at a highly intricate level.” He says that achieving an authentic sense of “social presence” is the holy grail for VR developers, and remains a tricky problem. That’s because, as Variety notes, current “VR is terrible at capturing your emotional state.”

The creative side

Going native

As new technologies emerge, it typically takes a generation of consumption before artists begin to emerge for whom the whole thing is second-nature. There’s no reason to expect that some years from now we won’t see young adults who will find VR a natural platform for their stories and ideas, and — should the technical issues have been resolved by then — that would be when we might expect VR movies.

How real is the right amount of real?

In Ready Player One, the OASIS VR world is fantastic enough that it’s usually easy to differentiate from real life: It’s so much nicer. On the other hand, Netflix’s Black Mirror specializes in great episodes about VR that’s so realistic it’s indistinguishable, or almost so, from reality. Season 3’s unforgettable San Junipero uses VR to raise some profound questions about the value of life, and Season 4 has a wonderful VR episode we won’t spoil by identifying.

How realistic would you want a virtual reality movie to be?

A pricey proposition

That having been said, there would be a tremendous amount of creative effort involved in designing entire worlds of convincing VR. It took Pixar six years to bring Coco to the screen with a team of hundreds of people, and that’s just 2D and 3D.


The Pixar artists started with absolutely nothing: no sky, no ground, no grass, etc. Everything had to be deliberately created, and even with pre-developed elements, there’s a Herculean effort involved, a challenge that would only be greater with a VR movie. Creating a full-length VR feature looks like it would be an absolutely massive — read “expensive” — undertaking.

Inevitable. Maybe.

When will we see a virtual reality film? Patience. It’s just too hard right now, and limited demos of the idea, such as director Alejandro González Iñárrit’s installation Carne y Arena, notwithstanding, we’ll have to wait a while for a generation that will grow up with the necessary skills, vocabulary, and aesthetic.

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

5 communication pitfalls that are preventing people from really hearing what you're trying to say

If you want to be a better and more passionate communicator, these tips are important.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today's age of outrage, you've likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn't feel that way anymore. Perhaps you're out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone's said something that doesn't sit right with you, and you're unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.

Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.

Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk says Boring Company tunnel opens Dec. 10

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less