Do you remember those moments long ago when you sat glued in front of the television set, longing to jump through the screen and land inside your favorite TV shows? You wanted help the Smurfs beat Gargamel or travel to space with Ren and Stimpy or wander through Springfield with Bart and Lisa. Maybe you still have those moments today. Maybe you watch Game of Thrones and think about how you could join in the battle or imagine yourself exploring The Land of Ooo with Finn and Jake in Adventure Time.
Thanks to virtual reality, our TV fantasies are becoming a bit more attainable. In fact, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might have tried the show’s VR experience. And if you’re obsessed with Adventure Time, you can step into Finn and Jake’s world with the new virtual reality game, Magic Man’s Head Games.
Decades after computer scientists first experimented with virtual reality, the medium is still emerging. While much of the VR-related hoopla has been confined to developer and press-related events, the experiences have been trickling into more general gatherings, like San Diego Comic-Con. Headsets are slowly making their way onto the consumer market. If, or when, virtual reality hardware becomes as commonplace as video game consoles, it will change the television landscape. The technology has the power to do that in several ways, and we’re already starting to see how this can happen thanks to some early adopters.
“A lot of the folks here on the crew basically fell in love with VR immediately, almost from day one, and said this would be genius for working with Adventure Time,” says Chris Waldron, vice president of Cartoon Network Digital. He adds that the show, which centers around adventures through lands that resemble video game levels, is ideal for experimenting with virtual reality. “The Land of Ooo in the show is pretty enormous and varied and idiosyncratic, and there’s lots of interesting nooks and crannies that you’ll want to go into and explore,” he says.
Right now, virtual reality presents fantastic marketing opportunities for media companies. They are immersive experiences that, unlike the massive activations that turn up at Comic-Con, require little space. The setting that fans enter exists inside the headset, powered by either a computer or a cell phone. “I think that VR offers a possibility that we’ve never seen before,” Waldron says, “so that you can engage with these worlds in ways that you couldn’t before.”
At the second annual Proto Awards, an event honoring achievements in VR development, nominated projects included a music video from Björk, an Adult Swim experience, Vice’s coverage of Millions March and a performance from Cirque du Soleil. No doubt, cutting edge artists and companies have embraced VR, and the experiments don’t end with these nominees.
“So much of big budget VR—and I mean that’s a hilarious oxymoron, because we’ve got to be spending more on it—but big budget VR is kind of adjunct marketing experiences for existing media properties,” says Adam Levin, CEO of The Virtual Reality Foundation and co-founder of the Proto Awards. From The Strain to The Hobbit, there are virtual reality experiences that allow fans to jump inside TV shows and films.
Virtual reality is an altogether different way of experiencing media. Inside the headset, you have a 360-degree view of the world. If you look straight ahead, as you would while staring at a television set or computer screen, you will miss something. A character might sneak up behind you if you don’t glance over your shoulder. A big reveal might only happen if you look down. “In other media, you can sort of look into the world and sort of peer in through a window, which is very powerful,” Waldron says. “Video games, television and movies, they’re very powerful media, but you’re still looking at this world through a window. With VR, you’re able to step into that world and that kind of changes the ballgame.”