She sits down on a rock, just a few feet away from me. She's tired, so completely drained that she doesn't even notice me here. Or maybe she doesn't care. We're just two travelers crossing paths in the wilderness. Maybe I should say something, I half-think. And then, without warning, Reese Witherspoon is looking at me.
She looks me right in the eye. Or maybe she's actually looking past me, at someone else, someone she recognizes, someone much more interesting than a tired tech blogger. I turn. Sure enough, there's a beautiful woman in a blue dress with blond curls sitting on another rock behind me—where no person was before. And that's the moment I realize just how powerful virtual reality movies could be.
What I just described was a scene from Wild—The Experience, a three-minute VR tie-in to the 20th Century Fox film, in which Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed, the real-life woman who hiked a thousand miles to help cope with her mother's death and wrote a book about the journey. The woman in the blue dress who appeared by magic is a vision of her mother, a vision that virtual reality viewers actually won't necessarily see. The experience is interactive, a 360-degree video where you can look wherever you want in the scene.
Unless you turn your head at just the right time—as I did—the mother won't appear.
What's fascinating, though, is that there's little chance I could have done otherwise. I'm hard-wired to react in the way I did, and I bet most humans are too. Much the way that a two-dimensional film director's framing, lighting, focus, and depth of field can guide your eye, tell you where to look and what to pay attention to without being blatant about it, this film's directors—Felix & Paul Studios—figured out a way to tell people where to look when they could have looked anywhere at all. "The new design language for media now is going to be about actors and audio cues," Oculus mobile boss Max Cohen tells me as I take off my Gear VR headset, "because you don't have control anymore."
Here, a poignant glance is all it took. That may not seem like much, but it validates the idea that you can tell a story in virtual reality, that maybe you could even make a feature film. Perhaps you're not aware, but a lot of smart people have been trying to figure that exact thing out, just in case it's video—not games—that becomes the killer app for virtual reality.
So far, the best VR experiences we've seen are mostly just ads, tie-ins, a cool addition to some company's marketing campaign, because that's where the money is right now. But that could change. YouTube just announced that it's adding support for 360-degree video, Samsung has its own 360-degree video app, and you can now buy a number of (very early) consumer-grade 360-degree cameras. Budding directors are starting to get the tools they need to experiment.
And 20th Century Fox, the company sponsoring this particular Felix & Paul effort, isn't done playing with the idea either. The Verge recently visited the Fox Innovation Lab that's spearheading Fox's interest in VR, and the company's digital strategist had some promising news: "Some of the very high-level execs that we've shown [this to] at Fox said the same thing: we should look at doing something like this for every movie and TV show that we have."
If they do, just be ready to look.