Can virtual reality ever surprise us like early cinema did?

The story goes that in 1896, when the Lumière brothers first showed a train pulling into La Ciotat station, the audience in the cinema erupted into chaos, running to the back to the cinema to avoid being hit. Regardless of how much of this is truth and how much is exaggeration, it’s a great founding myth for film, and a lesson in the ways new technology can facilitate a (now-incomprehensible) blur between fiction and reality.

How times have changed. For a 21st-century viewer, inhabiting the perspective of an age before film, TV and computers is impossible. We’ve grown up with these ways of seeing and interacting with the world, just as a younger generation will grow up with reactive screens and instant access to a limitless reservoir of information. Running from a projection of a train seems quaint and ridiculous – like a caveman screaming in fear at reinforced steel ceilings.

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While Hollywood has repeatedly marketed itself on the grounds of spectacle, from Technicolor to IMAX cinemas to 3D film, these are variations on the theme. They may push up ticket numbers, but they lack the sheer gulf in understanding represented by L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. Enter virtual reality. With the mass release of VR headsets – typified by the high-end HTC Vive – there is a buzz about the technology’s ability to make us forget the line between what is and isn’t real.

A number of clips have surfaced over the past week of people hurting themselves due to forgetting the boundaries of VR. While playing through a demo for VR spy game Budget Cuts, one YouTuber tried to poke his face down through a hole only to smack his face on the real-world floor of the studio.

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Elsewhere, a child has been filmed falling over after attempting to lean their body weight against a virtual desk. The GIF, published by Reddit user Arsanus, shows the child playing a VR game using the HTC Vive – learning that they can use the controllers to open drawers and pick up objects, but also learning (the hard way) that this mimesis doesn’t extend to actual mass.

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Are these moments the VR equivalent of

L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat? Do mistakes like these similarly stem from the lack of a framework to understand the boundaries of a new visual medium? Perhaps. VR builds on an already-established language of both moving images and video games, and there are clear differences between the communal spectacle of cinema and the isolated immersion of VR, yet there’s the feeling that interacting with virtual objects in virtual worlds is a rulebook still being written.   

But the Lumière brothers didn’t only show a train pulling into a station. Take a few minutes to look through their early films and you’ll see workers leaving factories, men playing cards and, most beautifully, a mother and father feeding their baby. The subjects of their films are not machines but people. The spectacle of the Lumière brothers’ films isn’t only in big events but in the quotidian details; the everyday events that, projected on the screen, hold up a celluloid mirror to the lives of its audience.

VR may bring with it La Ciotat-style surprises, but when virtual reality can make us look at people, consider other perspectives and rethink what we take for granted about our own lives, that’s when it will have its early cinema moment.

One example of how this may take shape is a VR film about blindness, which we described as “one of the best arguments yet for VR as a serious filmmaking medium.”

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