CES 2017: Hollywood Loves VR More Than Ever, But Watch Out for Augmented Reality

VR is awesome, but “Pokemon Go”-style experiences could have even more potential for the entertainment industry

Last Updated: January 9, 2017 @ 2:09 PM

Soon, the Consumer Electronics Show might pass the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association for the Las Vegas convention with the most goggles. Virtual reality continues to be a bigger part of the consumer tech extravaganza, and this year, Hollywood was as big a part of it as ever. Immersive virtual reality — but augmented reality may be an even better bet for Hollywood.

Qualcomm, best known for its cell phone chip business, had virtual reality as the centerpiece of its CES display. It showed off a “Power Rangers” experience, based on the Saban Brands characters and developed in partnership with VR production company Reel FX and Lionsgate, which is releasing “Power Rangers” on March 24. It is viewed on a custom smartphone-based system powered by the company’s Snapdragon processor snapped into a “Power Rangers”-themed headset.

TheWrap demonstrated the experience, which uses sight controls (focus on a specific target on the screen and you can select items and move around) and puts the user inside a Zord (huge mechanical rampaging robot) of his or her choice. The Zord’s-eye view was pretty great, but the smartphone technology didn’t deliver the clearest picture, and it would have been nice to move around more nimbly.

But maybe TheWrap takes VR a little too much for granted nowadays — a woman in her late 80s trying it for the first time was totally enthralled, mouth agape.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Fox Innovation Lab teased two new experiences tied to tentpole film franchises at a private event during CES. TheWrap strapped on an Oculus Rift headset for a couple-minute demo of the lab’s “Planet of the Apes” immersive VR experience, developed in partnership with Imaginati Studios.

The experience put the user in the body of an ape (with gorilla hands that moved when manipulating the attached handsets) who runs into a hostile primate, armed with a rifle. TheWrap was advised to try to take the gun, but the unsuccessful attempt ended up looking more like an awkward hug.

Fox also brought back its beautiful “The Martian” VR experience from last year, which is now available on major VR platforms PlayStation VR, Oculus and HTC Vive. At the convention, the studio announced plans to develop an “Alien: Covenant“-themed VR experience that will have Ridley Scott as an executive producer.

But augmented reality, which could reach a broader audience than high-quality (and expensive equipment-requiring) VR, may have even more promise for Hollywood. The technology introduced itself to the world through this summer’s viral hit “Pokemon Go,” where people scored points by capturing virtual characters that appeared in real locations.

Fox’s “Alien” augmented reality experience used a smaller sunglass-style goggle from Osterhout Design Group and headphones and took place in a darkened room with a pre-built set. When TheWrap put on the glasses and faced a corner of the room, a superimposed image of an alien escaping from a body appeared on the screen, with some residual blood left over when that scene ended. Later on in the experience, TheWrap looked around the corner when hearing an awful noise and saw aliens on the other wall.

The “Alien” AR experience was definitely scary, and it’s not hard to envision a campaign overlaying them elsewhere, especially with how easy to use the glasses were.

If “Pokemon Go” proved anything, it’s that augmented reality could get people to flock to physical locations, sometimes with overwhelming force, to chase down beloved video game characters — sometimes even wandering off cliffs in that single-minded pursuit. Imagine where they’d go to chase down rare superhero content or win tie-ins to movies.