Industrial Light & Magic wants to bring virtual reality to the movies

[It continues to be an exciting time to be studying presence! This story from USA Today includes more pictures and a 2:12 minute video about ILM’s presence-evoking special effects. –Matthew]

ILMx Lab Jurassic Park simulation

[Image: ILMxLAB’s creative director John Gaeta tests a prototype immersive experience. The experience combines live performance capture with sound and interactive real-time 3D rendering, immersing the viewer in the scene. (Photo: Greg Grusby)]

Industrial Light & Magic wants to bring virtual reality to the movies

Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
June 12, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO — Industrial Light & Magic is taking the notion of DVD-extras to a whole other galaxy.

The special-effects company, which was founded 40 years ago this summer by George Lucas to create the illusions for Star Wars, will announce Friday a new team dedicated to bringing virtual- and augmented-reality experiences to the movies.

ILM’s Experience Lab, or ILMxLab, will combine the technical assets of ILM, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm to create immersive experiences that allow fans to participate in their favorite movie worlds.

Although video games pegged to movies have promised a similar experience, this new tech will be different: non-competitive and using photo-realism rather than animation.

The division’s debut products will be Star Wars-based and debut later this year. The company is also working with other filmmakers to bring their projects into the virtual space. Disney, which bought Lucasfilm in 2013 for $3 billion, may use the resulting assets for everything from marketing to theme park attractions.

“ILMxLab is all about us leveraging our skills across all platforms,” says Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy. “It’s the Wild West out there with new frontiers, and we’re all figuring out these new tools. Today, technology is in search of content. But we can bring an emotional experience to that technology.”

ILMxLab’s next-gen entertainment mission comes at a time when the U.S. special effects scene – which pioneering ILM once dominated to the tune of 16 Oscars – faces increasing challenges from rival companies in Europe and Asia that benefit from tax incentives.

“The period of American technological superiority in the movie business is gone,” Lucas told USA TODAY in an interview. “You can get the same technology and people anywhere in the world now.”

Enter ILMxLab, which is testing a variety of iPad- and Oculus Rift-based technology that allows movie aficionados to enter specific scenes of a movie and navigate through them at will. ILMxLab executives say the tech is most likely to make its debut in association with J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December.

“What we’re aiming for is to open the two-dimensional world of the movies and allow fans to walk into those worlds with the same visual fidelity,” says John Gaeta, ILMxLab’s creative director. “All that George begat caused a reassessment of innovation from movies to video games. The next 40 years of ILM is about exploding that universe with tech once again. xLab is as attuned to Silicon Valley as it is to Hollywood.”

In an exclusive demo for USA TODAY, Gaeta fired up a Star Wars-inspired scene where R2D2 and C-3PO are hiding from Storm Troopers in a dusty village. Instead of just watching the scene on a screen, a visitor holding an iPad can turn 360-degrees and see all around the main characters’ world.

One room over, the same scene is played on a monitor while a visitor pops on a pair of Oculus Rift virtual-reality goggles. This time, the point of view is from on board an X-Wing fighter jet, which not only flies around the village but also responds to banking commands with head tilts.

The difference between a video game and ILMxLab’s world are immediately apparent. Rather than the goal being beating a rival, the end game is to put the viewer inside the movie in order to explore story lines perhaps not pursued by the director in the feature film itself.

Says Kennedy: “With image-quality rivaling film, you’ll be able to literally step into an alternate reality.”

The speed and realism of the ILMxLab demo wasn’t possible just a few years ago, but the combination of equipment such as tablets and VR goggles and the ability to store and stream massive data files in the cloud have changed the equation.

“Apple, Google, Intel, they all have moonshot projects around AR and VR, but they’re still just figuring it out,” Gaeta says. “Our standards for world-building are very high, and we intend to use our technology to give people experiences that they haven’t yet dreamed of.”


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