Movie theater attendance has decreased significantly in recent years, hitting a 24-year-low in 2017, but a team of software developers thinks virtual reality (VR) could play a role in drawing movie fans back to the box office.1

The team, from software firm KAI, developed a system designed to streamline the process for modifying films for theaters that use ultra-wide, three-screen formats and provide an immersive 270-degree viewing experience.

Multi-screen theaters, like ScreenX in South Korea, place screens on sidewalls to extend the main view with peripheral content. The films are typically shot with three cameras and producers then modify the film to fit each theater’s specific screen. But modifying films for each screen set-up can be a time-consuming task since entire films may need to be edited multiple times and results are hard to predict until the film is seen in the theater. That’s why the KAI team created VR Theater, a theater simulator that allows movie producers to leverage VR for testing multi-screen content on a variety of screen formats prior to a film’s release.

Aside from potentially bringing these immersive experiences to life faster, this new technology could also influence the way theaters are designed in the future.

VR Theater uses Unity, a popular game development platform that provides a library of VR plugins and supports undistorted wide view mirroring. The team selected Oculus Rift as its VR device because of its high-performance simulation, delivered with an Xbox One controller that allows the user to navigate between scenes. The system also works with the HTC Vive.

“VR Theater allows the user to select a theater and virtually place video content on the center, left and right screens. They can then visualize how the content will look when played together in a theater,” said Kyunghan Lee, the team manager at KAI. “Users can customize the entire theater, including the number of seats, room size and screen size, and adjust some of these settings in real time.”

The system can be used by movie producers to adjust content, as well as by space designers and engineers to simulate the movie environment before the theater is designed or built.

“By having a simulation of how the real-world movie theater will look and how content for a multiple-screen system will look in advance, VR Theater can reduce the gap of the trial-and-error process of producing content for multiple screens,” Lee said.

The system is unique because it allows users to view the screen from any seat in the theater and then change seating positions to view different angles. Users can also adjust physical elements to visualize the impact on the moviegoer’s experience.

Figure 1: VR Theater simulation

“We’re continuing to increase the realism of VR Theater. Factors such as the color of the clothes moviegoers are wearing, light reflecting between materials and sound effects for virtual reality movie theaters all impact the experience,” Lee said.

While the system is still in development, the team believes their simulator will reduce the time and cost needed to develop immersive, three-screen content. In the future, this technology could help bring in more moviegoers by helping both theater companies and filmmakers better understand the viewing experience and what can be done to improve it.

VR Theater was presented at the 2017 Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Hollywood, CA. For more information on VR Theater or to access more content from SMPTE, visit the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.