Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel Ready Player One is hitting the big screen later this month. As a story based in a world where virtual reality headsets are omnipresent and everyone is connected to the massive multiplayer online universe dubbed ‘The Oasis’, many are wondering what role the film will play in VR’s continued push towards mainstream adoption. While basically none of the technology portrayed in Ready Player One reflects the current state of VR devices or software, leaving a clear gap in its ‘advertised’ benefits and the reality of the experience available to VR users today, it still has the potential to be a significant factor in VR adoption. To what extent? Well, that comes down to how many eyeballs see it and if it sucks or not.

In case you haven’t read the book, or heard anything about the movie, here’s the spoiler-free summary from Warner Bros.:

In the year 2045, the real world is a harsh place. The only time Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. The OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who left his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. When Wade conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends-aka the High Five-are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS.

Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, save film critics and the people who attended a limited early debut, I haven’t seen the film yet. I do have a pretty good idea of what’s in store though; I’ve read the novel a few times, seen every trailer, dragged my eyes across every behind-the-scenes image currently available, and even skimmed the supposedly leaked screenplay; call it my duty as a journalist who both says and types the letters “VR” about 50 times per day. I am allowing myself one unfounded prediction though before seeing the film: even though HTC Vive is the official VR partner of the film, you won’t see the protagonist Wade Watts wearing an HTC-branded headset. In every image I’ve seen of Wade (Tye Sheridan), he’s wearing a variety of fictional headsets emblazoned with the story’s  evil corporation ‘IOI’, so there doesn’t appear to be any VR-specific brand placement in the film. So, the film isn’t overtly making any specific claims about current tech—something that ought to help people avoid making erroneous connections between the film’s idealized VR tech, and what really exists on shelves today.

image courtesy Entertainment Weekly

Inevitably some people will mistake Ready Player One‘s ‘perfect’ version of VR tech for the technology available today, replete with the still-fictional ability for complete sensory immersion inside a photorealistic MMO—something that plainly doesn’t exist. After all, to the uninitiated, the outward appearance of a person wearing a VR headset is pretty much the same as in the film. It’s probable most people will implicitly understand that it’s no more possible today than the augmented reality objects and characters seen in recent sci-fi flick Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Ready Player One is set in a fake future set 30 years from now; most people will get that.

Despite the gap between film and reality, fiction can still be a powerful motivator in driving public behavior though, and presenting the viewer with a place or activity can be just as powerful as flashing a well-positioned can of Coke on the screen.

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The Lord of the Rings Effect

Compelling movie-goers out of their seats and into a specific location, activity, lifestyle doesn’t appear to have a fool-proof recipe, although it’s clear that a fantasy-based, 2 hour-long advert has done the trick for a few very successful films. And in that vein, Ready Player One is an advert for VR.

Case in point: Hobbits don’t exist. Cheery old Hobbiton, although maintained as a tourist destination today at a family run farm five miles west of Hinuera, New Zealand, isn’t a ‘real’ place either. Just the same, New Zealand’s Tourism Board continues to capitalize on the success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogy by essentially advertising it as the ‘Land of the Middle Earth’ thanks to the country’s role in serving as the main filming location. New Zealand’s International Visitor survey found that 16 percent of international tourists cited The Hobbit Trilogy as the initial reason they considered a trip to the country in 2015. You could call it The Lord of the Rings Effect. You could also equally call it The Top Gun Effect, or The A River Runs Through It Effect.

image courtesy Hobbiton Tours

A River Runs Through It (1993) starring Brad Pitt is well-known by many a Montanan as the main reason for the massive influx of fishing tourists looking to live the poetic fly fishing lifestyle famously espoused in the film. Having lived in Montana in the late ’90s and done my fair share of fishing there, A River Runs Through It was on the lips of nearly every crotchety fisherman, who would incessantly blame the movie for the fresh rash of  Californians walking in with a pair of brand new waders and trying his/her hand at slapping a fishing pole against a few low-slung tree limbs. It wasn’t just a Montana phenomenon though, as it was the impetus for a 40 percent increase in fly-fishing gear sold by major mail order firm The Orvis Company.

After Top Gun, the US Navy saw a 500 percent surge in interest to become a Navy aviators after its 1986 release, attributed directly to the film’s portrayal of the idealized lifestyle and drama surrounding rock star-level naval pilots. Whether actual enlistment numbers were dramatically affected still isn’t really clear, as the Navy hasn’t released any hard numbers, however what is clear is people saw the possibility of a lifestyle portrayed in a work of fiction and wanted a piece of it.

While direct product placement is a bit of a different beast in terms of motivating movie-goers to open their wallets, it’s interesting to note that in Risky Business (1983), Tom Cruise’s prior film to Top Gun, where Cruise dons a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, resulted in a near doubling of in sales of the iconic shades in 1983 alone. Like I said, Ready Player One‘s ability to drive VR adoption isn’t so much about direct product placement because it’s a sci-fi film without a direct link to a specific product, although you might consider the VR tech of today to be Ready Player One-adjacent enough to drive significant interest. Effectively converting that interest into a headset purchase doesn’t come without some barriers of its own though.

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Possibility for Disillusion

There’s plenty of different options to choose from, but there’s also a real possibility for disillusion. It’s not so much tied up in the technical state of current VR hardware either, as you can really have some life changing experiences in VR right this second, but it’s more about disillusion with the hardware’s barrier to entry. Movie-goers fresh from the theater looking to spend money on a headset will have only a few real options, and starting out from scratch (ie: no gaming computer, no VR-supported flagship phone, or no PlayStation 4) means newcomers will have to drop a few hundred dollars minimum as the price of admission for a decent quality experience.

image created by Road to VR

While Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have come down in price significantly since launch in 2016—a Rift now at $400 and a Vive at $600—combined with the need for at very least a middle tier gaming PC, the overall investment in the highest-quality experience is still prohibitively expensive for a good chunk of the film’s target audience, which is likely gunning for males aged 13-30. Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream require specific flagship smartphones, which if you already own will only set you back about $130 for just the add-on headset and controller. The level of immersion for these more limited mobile VR headsets, while great starter devices, doesn’t really have the depth of gameplay possible with positionally-tracked headsets such as Rift, Vive, or Windows VR headsets. PlayStation VR is a much better candidate for the target audience, although without a PS4, you’re still looking at a total of about $600 by the time you buy the console and headset.

There are future headsets on the rise, such as the $200 Oculus Go standalone headset and a still-hypothetical Western release for HTC Vive Focus standalone, but with no official launch date for either, they simply don’t factor in yet. However, the $400 Lenovo Mirage Solo standalone could stand to benefit, though it won’t launch until May 5th, outside of the film’s prime time. People might also try a cheaper Cardboard smartphone holder and decide it’s not worth investigating further.

These aren’t insurmountable barriers, but they will add friction in the vital process between exiting the theater and heading to Best Buy for that first headset purchase motivated by seeing a cool adventure that uses virtual reality.

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Please Don’t Suck

If it’s anything like the book, Ready Player One the film will excel at selling a single idea more than anything—the ‘wow, VR is going to be really cool and I want in now no matter what’ idea we all had at some point before jumping into the deep end. Of course, there aren’t any guarantees that Spielberg’s Ready Player One will pan out as one of those instant classics on the level of Top Gun either.

image courtesy Warner Bros.

It’s impossible to fit a book’s-worth of content into a two hour-long film, so there’s bound to be discussion surrounding whether the movie truly captured the soul of the book while not managing to lop off the important bits for the sake of brevity and traditional movie pacing. Whether it resonates with the audience or not is really the only metric that matters here though. On that front, Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the movie an aggregate critic score of 80%, so it’s poised to do at least an average job of getting butts into seats on its own merits. Also, it’s a Steven Spielberg flick, so it certainly has name-brand appeal.

We can really only wait and see if the film will be considered a successful ‘activation’ of VR. That said, if the film isn’t spectacular and doesn’t really ‘stick’, it certainly won’t hurt VR adoption, it’ll simply fade into obscurity and cease exist in the collective consciousness.

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Well before the first modern XR products hit the market, Scott recognized the potential of the technology and set out to understand and document its growth. He has been professionally reporting on the space for nearly a decade as Editor at Road to VR, authoring more than 3,500 articles on the topic. Scott brings that seasoned insight to his reporting from major industry events across the globe.
  • impurekind

    Yeah, I’m really hoping this film delivers. I’m not sure it will have a huuuge impact on VR sales, just because of how prohibitively expensive it is and because anyone who was even remotely interested in VR probably knows about the current heads and will have bought one already if they could afford it, but any publicity is welcome imo. And I think the movie should easily be good enough to have an overall positive effect on VR in general.

    • jj

      I agree and I actually prefer it at this level compared to being highlighted in all areas of media. I know soon there will be a TON of VR media marketed for kids to get them hooked early and I don’t care for that as much. its always gimicky, flashy and cheap because the kids dont care

  • Jacob Kuntzman

    I’m rather interested in it as someone who already plays in VR regularly. To me, it might as well be called “VR Chat: The Movie.” :P Makes it fun to imagine where VR Chat and similar platforms might be in 30 years! :)

  • Michael Parks

    As a confirmed gadget-guy (Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear owner), I have to add that one of the best available examples of what current-day VR can do is iRacing. The sense of immersion is amazing, all the more so because they use laser-scanned versions of the real thing. Add that to racing in real time against players around the world and you have an experience close to what Cline writes about.

    • gothicvillas

      iracing in VR is gold!!

      • Danielle

        Google is paying all people 98 US dollars per-hr to complete few services from the comfort of home . Work Some only few period of time in a day & live happy more time together with your own family . You can benefit this special offer!!!on Saturday I purchased a top of the range Lotus Elan after I been making $11582 past five weeks .it looks my favourite-job but you can no longer forgive yourself if you do not read it.!hg292p:➬➬➬ http://GoogleOneFinanceReportsOnline/get/pay/$99/h ♥♥m♥♥♥a♥g♥♥♥d♥♥♥k♥x♥♥n♥g♥♥h♥♥s♥♥♥w♥♥w♥♥q♥l♥♥♥h♥u♥♥♥u♥♥k♥♥z♥♥♥t♥♥♥w♥s♥♥♥x♥♥♥y♥♥d::!sh711s:ishpgsb

  • Brad Neuberg

    Just as long as its not as bad as Lawnmower Man….

    • TwistedAdonis

      I love that film. So bad it’s etc…

  • Good editorial!

  • mirak

    I just saw the movie and it is pretty good

  • Watcher


  • NooYawker

    The moral of the story is VR will enslave us all. Life is shit compared to the life you want in the VR world.

  • Daft

    I don’t own the overly hyped Oculus or Vive but I did pick up WMR recently, from my experience with it I feel like VR maybe there but the content is incredibly lacking. I just don’t think it will ever be on par with your average PC. Though we like to live in an optimistic world so if I were to take a crack at it, the major problem isn’t the hardware the major problem is how they utilize VR at the end of the day realize regardless what you spend on VR tech they were designed to fool our eyes in order to alter our perception of reality. What needs to change is perhaps a processor capable of tracking your eyesight and delivering just the right amount of visual feedback. Besides just fooling our senses, we need technology that can keep up with our brains way of interpreting the feedback.

  • turd

    The technology in ready player one isn’t shown . There is already technology to simulate flight and jumping yet ready player one has a single fucking treadmill and a suit that gropes you. What do you think the people are doing when they jump around on their treadmills in their caravans? They should have just made it a thing that connects toy our brain. This movie had so many inconsistencies and nonsense . “You can be anything” “Lets have an all out war and pick useless tiny tiny characters instead of all being the iron giant” Terrible movie. Right now we have better technology than what is shown on ready player one . They don’t understand how games , people or vr work and made a movie about those 3 things.

  • Drift

    I would rather exit reality, in the near future we may even see that become a possibility. You could simply upload your mind or essence into the machine and live out your eternal life as mere data. So that would ultimately kick the vr argument in the bin. We will basically have a future where unlike the Matrix people will become willing hosts to be permanently plugged in. Rather than fight the machine as it were, future humans will want to escape the destructive elements of space. Where a late Earth will have become an inhospitable environment. Chances are you would either be living in the Matrix which would be cheaper and easier to maintain or space colonies that would have their own set of challenges.