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The VR “Dream Park”

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Ready or not, here comes the future of mass entertainment.

As Adi Robertson and Ben Popper write in The Verge, “my partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.

Then we take off our headsets, and it all disappears. I’m standing on stage playing a game called The Curse of the Serpent’s Eye in The Void, an experience created by the Utah-based company of the same name that is one part virtual reality, one part video game, one part interactive theater, and one part haunted house. Its creators call it ‘hyper-reality’: a virtual experience overlaid onto physical space, creating impossible places that visitors can touch as well as see.

Instead of a torch, I’m carrying a wooden dowel studded with small, shiny balls. Instead of the hissing snake, I see what look like powerful fans. And instead of the straight golden walls, there’s a round and nearly featureless gray labyrinth, turning us in circles forever.

On July 1st, after months of running limited ‘beta testing,’ The Void is opening its first public attraction: a Ghostbusters-themed experience in New York City’s Times Square, located inside the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. For $50, visitors can strap on a VR headset and a backpack computer fashioned into a Ghostbusters proton pack, pick up a matching gun-shaped plastic prop, and act out a cinematic fantasy in real life.

After opening a door into a small New York City apartment, they’re accosted by tiny pink poltergeists, then make their way into an elevator and out a 40th-story window. A flock of living stone gargoyles and one angry Victorian spirit later, everything seems fine… until a familiar marshmallow-shaped face appears in the window.

Ghostbusters: Dimension is short and linear, although there are supposedly hidden Easter eggs for visitors to find—it’s a walk-through three-person experience, not a vast virtual world. But as technological achievements go, it’s a stunningly intricate one.

Players can see full-body avatars of their companions thanks to tracking markers on the headset and gun, and they walk freely through a tremendous amount of space by VR standards. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of getting hit by a thrown object or friendly proton pack fire, and mist accompanies the whooshing of a ghost.

We tried it, and it may blow your mind if you ever get a chance to try it too. Over the last four years, virtual reality has emerged as one of tech’s most exciting new sectors: Facebook, Google, Samsung, and Sony are all in the process of producing and marketing virtual reality hardware.

Most of those devices are are being sold directly to consumers; the experiences they offer—games, short films, and the like—are meant to be played at home, sitting in a chair or else tethered to a nearby PC and power supply.

But there’s an entirely separate category of virtual reality that won’t be possible at home. You’ll be able to walk freely, without tripping over wires. You’ll actually feel the heat of a fire on your face, and the weightlessness in your stomach during a fall off a skyscraper. These are the virtual reality experiences currently being built into arcades, attractions, and theme parks.

In February of this year, China’s Shanda Group announced it would invest $350 million in virtual reality and build a VR theme park built in collaboration with The Void. IMAX, the widescreen theater chain, is working with the Swedish game studio Starbreeze to bring ‘premium location-based virtual reality … to multiplexes, malls and other commercial destinations.’ And established amusement parks are layering virtual reality onto their existing rides—Six Flags is currently upgrading nine roller coasters into VR experiences this summer.

In one way, there’s something contradictory about driving all the way to a theme park to get into a virtual world. In another, ‘virtual reality’ seems like an arbitrary term to throw around, when theme parks already offer simulator rides and 4D theaters—does adding a headset fundamentally change the experience?

But if these attractions catch on, they could give people a new way to live out the fantasies that Disney, Warner Brothers, and other companies have used to build multi-billion dollar empires. And to companies like The Void, VR isn’t just a new technology. It’s the key to building another world.”

This is what’s happening, and that’s that – there’s really no arguing with it; not unlike the “Dream Palaces” in Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement, which I keep coming back to again and again. Soon these “dream parks” will pop up everywhere, and encourage people, even more, to live almost completely in a fantasy world. Comic book movies long ago took over the multiplex, and show no sign of easing their iron grip on the box-office; it seems that perpetual adolescence is now in control.

One wonders, absolutely idly, what someone like Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson or a more thoughtful director recent vintage might do with such technology, but it seems that the two mediums are incompatible. This is the future of theatrical exhibition; traditional “movies,” in 2-D, 3-D or Imax, are about to undergo a revolution.

This is just the opening salvo in what will be a complete transformation of the filmgoing experience; narrative films in which the viewer is a key participant. In ten years, contemporary cinemas will be as outmoded as silent films were in the late 1920s; you watch, this is coming on fast.

The VR future of “dream parks” is here and now.

Now Your Television Will Watch You

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Click here for a demo of this new system; note the camera, watching you, prominently displayed on the top of the television.

The gentleman above is giving an audience demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few days ago of a new device that he thinks you’ll want in your home very soon; a television that watches you.

As Nick Hide in CNet writes, “In the kind of dystopian insanity that would have George Orwell banging his head on his keyboard, Samsung’s newest Smart TVs watch you . . . the Korean manufacturer’s latest tellies recognise your voice and gestures with a built-in camera and mic.

The camera can interpret simple gestures — move your hand around to control a cursor and clench your fist to ‘click’ — and even the different faces of your family members. You can associate permissions with various faces, so if your wee one turns on the telly they’ll only be able to watch CBeebies.

Voice recognition means you can tell your TV which channel you want to watch and change volume, among other functions, which sounds like a really useful feature for people with disabilities, those who’ve lost their remote . . .”

And as Michael Learmonth notes in Advertising Age, “front-facing cameras are everywhere on laptops, tablets and phones. If the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was any indication, [which ran from January 10-13, 2012] they’re about to become ubiquitous on TVs as well.

New TVs from Samsung and Lenovo used the show to introduce TVs that recognize you and others in the room, automatically logging you into Facebook and pulling up your favorite channels or websites [emphasis added]. Lenovo’s TV lets you use the camera as an ID service that blocks access to certain content or channels if a child is in the room. For Samsung’s 7500 and 8000 series TVs, all you have to do is say ‘Hi, TV,’ when you walk into a room for the TV to turn on and know who’s there.

As one can imagine, this is all very exciting to the world’s biggest advertisers, many of whom saw these new applications for the first time this week when they toured the show floor. These are the execs who spend billions on TV advertising but really don’t know who’s in the room when their ads air — or whether their intended audience is busy with a mobile phone or tablet anyway.

‘Is anyone watching? This is why advertisers are so excited about front-facing cameras,’ Frank Barbieri, exec VP of emerging platforms at Yume, told a group of ad agency execs and clients during a tour. Yume powers advertising on smart TVs from Samsung and LG.

Many people in the living room are multitasking with other devices. ‘We’re paying for that,’ said Rex Harris, innovations supervisor at SMGX, a unit of ad agency holding company Publicis Groupe. ‘If you’re looking at other screens, then you’re not paying attention. We would like to know if we’re getting accurate impressions.’

Consumers stand to gain too, according to Mr. Harris [emphasis added]. ‘The idea is, if the ad is more targeted to you, you will get more value out of it,’ he said. ‘When your device knows where you are and knows what you like, it will be a more valuable experience for you.’”

Right. Just imagine when this becomes the new default television system; Orwellian beyond anyone’s possible dreams. Automatically logs you into Facebook via facial recognition, watches you watching the television, and keeps tabs on you if your attention strays to something like reading a book.

The scariest thing for me is that I predict that most people will simply fall in line with this, convinced that it’s the next big thing, and convinced that it makes them part of a virtual community. Nonsense – this is simply advertising and data mining at its most intrusive, and anyone who agrees to this system becomes a target for a totalitarian regime.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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