Is Virtual Reality the Future of South Korean Cinema?

An Australian student tries on Samsung’s Gear VR, a headset that’s compatible with smart phones, at Samsung’s D’light showroom in Seoul

"In an age where users can easily download films to watch anything on HD screens, theaters are looking for a way to keep audiences coming with spectacle and immersive experiences."

In Seoul's famous Gangnam area, Samsung’s D’light showroom has become such a big tourist draw that guides speaking in multiple languages are now available. Here, visitors line up to check out how interactive, virtual reality experiences turn a plain, life-size kitchen model into an intimate, engaging narrative about a family coming together to cook dinner.

The rise of consumer-friendly local products such as Gear VR, a smartphone-compatible headset developed with Oculus, or Project Beyond, a 360-degree omniview camera for shooting 3D VR content, caters to the growing demand in Asia for immersive video games — and, possibly, the future direction of filmmaking in South Korea.

In fact, in this highly tech-savvy country, local filmmakers and cinema exhibitors are looking beyond 3D and 4D into the “5D realm” of VR — particularly as demand for Korean VFX talent and theater technologies grows only stronger in neighboring China.

"We see virtual reality as the next platform," says JK Shin, CEO and president of Samsung Electronics’ IT & mobile division.

Jeon Woo-yeol, who directed Korea’s first VR movie, the 2015 short Time Paradox VR, also believes that VR will kick off a paradigm shift in the industry. "It could take up to several years to develop VR video games, but films have an advantage in that they require a shorter production time," says Jeon, who is working on four new VR projects. "I think VR movies and audiovisual content will spearhead the VR market."

Indeed, VR is an increasingly hot topic among industry insiders in South Korea. CJ CGV, the country’s largest exhibitor, has caught the trend and taken its first steps toward VR as an exhibition format with ScreenX, an immersive, three-screen cinema technology that was developed with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology.

CJ CGV’s immersive ScreenX theater

There are now 84 ScreenX theaters in four countries, and the number is expected to rise in the coming months through a deal with China’s Wanda Group, the world’s largest owner of cinema chains, including Wanda Cinema Line in China, AMC in North America and Australia’s Hoyts. CJ is aiming to expand the number of theaters to 1,000 by the year 2020.

Several films already have been offered in the ScreenX format in South Korea, including the hit thriller Coin Locker Girl. Wanda Group, meanwhile, has pledged not only to install more of the multiple-screen theaters at its locations across the world, but also to produce some of its own productions in ScreenX format, beginning with the big-budget adventure film The Ghouls.

Says a CGV spokesperson: “In an age where users can easily download films to watch anything on HD screens, theaters are looking for a way to keep audiences coming with spectacle and immersive experiences. ScreenX is designed to give audiences a more lively experience through a panoramic view of what’s happening on screen."