For those involved in the early development of virtual reality, the story of the cinema’s first steps provides a number of important takeaways
It was a chilly evening in December 1895, when a few dozen people, wrapped in winter coats, entered the Grande Café to acquaint themselves with a new medium which would, ultimately, change the way in which the human species would express itself. This new medium, which had actually been demonstrated some months earlier, was the Cinématographe (hence the term, “cinema”). Hosting the evening were the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who had worked together in their father’s photographic studio, and had struggled to develop this medium over the two years leading up to this screening. One of the films that they screened was “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which will be remembered as a turning point in the history of cinema.
The exciting first steps leading to the birth of the new medium, the developers’ mistaken assumptions, the viewers’ habits, and the surprises along the way are, from a perspective of 130 years later, fascinating. For those currently involved in the early development of a new medium — virtual reality — the story of the cinema’s first steps provides a number of important lessons.
1. Why have we stopped running away from the train on the cinema screen?
It may be an apocryphal addition to the events of that evening, but it is said that, as the train approached the station and gradually filled the screen, the viewers fled from the cafe for fear that the train would run them down. There are good reasons to doubt the authenticity of this story.
But setting aside the question of whether it actually occurred, it does reflect a fact that is difficult to argue with: The illusion created on film, in the early days of cinema, was particularly effective. It was easy for us to overlook the gap between the real world and the world on film. Why has that illusion disappeared? Why have we stopped running away from the train in the picture theater?
It would seem like the creation of a realistic experience is something relative, changing: What appeared realistic to us yesterday now feels artificial. The film industry is in a constant race to catch up since illusions quickly become outdated — we have moved from silent movies to the talkies, from black and white to color, from two-dimensional to 3D.
Because realism is a moving target, rather than a clearly defined goal, also affects the perceived authenticity of the experiences on virtual reality platforms. The first generation of VR content offered three or four years ago was based on simple graphics and minimal attention to our bodies’ movements. Yet it still created an effective illusion; even though we felt that we were in an environment that had been drawn or painted, we nonetheless felt like we were constantly falling from the roller coaster, or crashing into the wall in a motorcycle race.
The new experiences coming from devices such as the Oculus Rift offer a sharper and more detailed environment. We can assume in the coming years that there will be a constant evolution in the level of the illusion we will be immersed in.
But when we consider this medium, it is important to remember that, as it develops, so too will our stimulus threshold and expectations from it. Those of us who intend to develop virtual reality applications in education have to accept that the experiences that excite us today will not amaze us tomorrow.
2. Who wants to see a train arriving at the station?
The content of the film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” screened on that festive evening, is summarized in its title — the film shows a train approaching and arriving at the station. It ends with a number of people seen leaving the train.
A present day viewer would find it difficult to understand what is so interesting about a film with such banal content and seemingly no story. Apparently, the interest came from the “wow effect,” of watching a new medium rather than what actually happened in the film.
About two years passed from this screening till the appearance of the first film that told a story. It was not the Lumière brothers who made this transition; they stuck to depictions of daily life. Similarly, the present generation of virtual reality experiences in education is a generation focusing on demonstrating the medium’s capabilities. We are still resting on the laurels of the “wow effect.” The next challenge is to go beyond that effect, and to tell a story using this new language.
3. Who are the people traveling on the train who are arriving at the station?
The train shown in the Lumière brothers’ film was not an ordinary locomotive on a regular journey. For this film, a special train was ordered, and the brothers’ family members were the passengers. The intimacy of this film is characteristic of the brothers’ other films, including films shot on family holidays and so on.
The context of the Lumière brothers’ films indicates the way in which they viewed this new medium. For them, this medium was apparently something amateur, to be used in daily life, rather than a medium for professionals. History has shown that, ultimately, this medium split into two separate tracks: on the one hand, it developed into a professional industry of expensive Hollywood productions; on the other hand it became an amateur technique, whose highpoint has been reached in the fact that every user now has a good quality movie camera built into their telephone.
Virtual reality’s first steps indicate that two separate tracks seem to be operating here too: one professional, the other amateur. At the professional pole, we will witness expensive productions that employ a battery of designers and programmers, who promise a perfectly scripted experience. Projections speak of revenues from the virtual reality market of about $30 billion in 2020, with about 80% of this revenue expected to come from content development, such as films, games and parks.
In parallel, some of the significant players in the field, foremost among them Google, are aiming at amateur production of content for virtual reality, from 360-degree cameras to applications for filming and content conversion. If we were to bet on the area that would be worth developing in the context of the education system, we would guess that the amateur side will have the potential to reach a broader audience and be more effective.
4. Why is the film only a minute long?
The Lumière brothers’ projection device had room for a film of about one minute’s length. Contrary to what might be assumed, this was not due to technical limitations – it was already possible to film and project longer films.
The reason for the short length of the film was the assumption that no one would want to watch a longer film. Strange, right?
Such an assumption comes from the fact that when we try to assess the potential of a new medium — of a tool for expression that we did not have previously — we rely on familiar media. From the point of view of the Lumière brothers, who made their living from a photographic studio, cinematography was animated photography; they thought it played the same role that still photography had played till then, such as taking family pictures, documenting a dramatic moment, recording an important site, etc. If this is the starting point, there is no reason to assume that there will be a need for films longer than a minute.
The cinema underwent a gradual process in which it disconnected from its role of amplifying or extending another medium, and instead took on an identity of its own: This included its own language to describe phenomena, such as editing and camera angles, that did not exist in the theater, for example.
Virtual reality is at a similar stage – it is still interpreted as an improved platform for drama, or as an enhanced platform for film, and not as a medium or as a language that stands on its own. The process of creating a unique, individual identity for a medium is an outcome of its use, of trial and error, and of daily practice. There are no shortcuts in this field. If you want to advance this medium so that it becomes an active player in the field of education, you need to close the distance between the medium and day-to-day life.
5. Why has popular film history forgotten Edison and remembered the Lumière brothers?
The Lumière brothers are considered the fathers of the cinema, even though other inventors preceded them by some years, among them Thomas Alva Edison. In 1893, two years before the Lumière brothers, Edison created the kinetoscope, another device that allowed films to be recorded and played back.
The answer to the question above may lie in the way they chose to implement how the moving picture was viewed. The Lumière brothers created a cinema that was screened before an audience, a social medium, while Edison designed his viewing experience as an individual one. Edison’s kinetoscope was a device that allowed for one viewer at a time. He designed it this way because he did not believe that there would be a business model for public screenings, while such a model would exist for the individual experience.
While there may not have been a business model for public screenings, such models developed over time as a result of the medium’s rising popularity. Demand for film came from it being a public medium and social activity.
A new medium and a new language need an audience that will become a partner in its creation, and will speak the new language. Those who are leading the virtual reality revolution are well aware of this aspect. The most telling expression of this lies in the fact that one of the dominant players in the virtual reality revolution is Facebook, which sees this VR as an important part of the interaction of the future in social networks. When we think of virtual reality in education, which is primarily based on dialogue and discourse, this social aspect takes on even greater importance.
MindCET is an EdTech innovation center which brings together entrepreneurs, educators and researchers to develop innovative groundbreaking educational technology in Israel and beyond.
The views expressed are of the author.
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