E3 Preview: Virtual Reality Breakthroughs Drawing Hollywood to Gaming Confab

With Oculus having unveiled its Rift VR headset and Lucasfilm having announced 'Star Wars' VR content, the stage is set for a major push into VR by both gamers and content-makers.

Hollywood is heading for E3, the annual gaming expo that opens Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the newest developments in virtual reality will be center stage.

The advance buzz surrounding virtual reality began intensifying last week with Oculus’ high-profile unveiling of the consumer version of its Rift VR headsets, along with Lucasfilm’s announced plans to start a VR unit to create Star Wars content. VR was also one of the biggest topics of interest at last week's Studio Technology Leaders Dinner, hosted by USC's Entertainment Technology Center. And VR stakeholders will gather in even greater numbers at E3.

While some observers are predicting this year’s E3 will be the dress rehearsal for VR to make a major push in 2016, others argue VR is ready to make a splash now. And a November 2014 report by Sophic Capital projects that VR could become a $7 billion market by 2018.

“VR has come so far, so fast. But this isn’t science fiction, it’s happening today,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckley said at his company’s pre-E3 press conference. It got major attention when the company — which was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014 — unwrapped the Rift, headsets that will be marketed to consumers, while announcing that gaming content could be played on these devices thanks to a partnership with Microsoft. Rift headsets will be at E3 with content demonstrations, and the goggles are scheduled to enter the market in early 2016.

Sony’s VR system, dubbed Project Morpheus, and the HTC Vive are also expected to land within the year. And Samsung’s Gear VR headsets, which are already in the market, will be among those demoed at E3.

The event won’t just be about the hardware, though. It will be about the content.

Games are generally considered the low-hanging fruit in this potential market, but there's also interest in narrative content. “I would be surprised if you don't see more large-scale, big-movie IP with VR. The studio system is super-excited," Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri (a Lucasfilm alum) predicted.

Execs from Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic plan to attend E3. Last week they announced that they have started an immersive content unit that will develop experiences for VR, as well as augmented reality and theme parks — and that that content will include Star Wars stories.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Lucasfilm executive vp and ILM president Lynwen Brennan confirmed that the unit is working on additional Disney-owned IP — which, of course, includes the Marvel universe and Pixar films — as well as IP from other filmmakers and studios. Some are already in production: The first project, a Jurassic Park experience, has already been demoed with Oculus Rift.

20th Century Fox execs also plan to be on hand at E3, and they too have been exploring VR content creation, including an experience based on Fox Searchlight’s Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Meanwhile, the production community is getting to work so that narrative content can be created for the headgear. VR startup Jaunt — which has already raised $34 million in funding — plans to open a VR production studio in Los Angeles.

VR camera rigs are already in use that can hold a collection of cameras (from GoPros to Red Epics) to create 360 views. And postproduction equipment makers are developing ways that filmmakers can work in a spherical environment, with the ability to review on VR goggles.