An airplane ride with Ted Schilowitz, a futurist at 20th Century Fox, has become an unforgettable experience.
On countless trips over the last year, people have tapped Schilowitz's shoulder, wondering what the heck the bulky goggles he often wraps around his head are all about. He lets other passengers strap on the device and snaps a picture with his smartphone when they start beaming in amazement.
The fascination is over virtual reality viewers such as the Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift.
"When people do VR for the first time they are usually very vocal about it," Schilowitz said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the LA Games Conference on Wednesday. "People react very strongly, then other people in the plane are leaning and wondering what's going on. Then the flight attendant comes by and says, 'That guy five rows back wants to try it, do you mind?' And pretty soon, the flight attendant wants to try it."
Thousands of people have used test versions of the headsets at industry conventions or private demonstrations. They quickly recognize that virtual reality viewers, which envelope one's field of view with imagery, can't be appreciated without being taken for a test ride.
People are bored on long trips and eager for novelty. That has made airplane passengers a perfect informal focus group for the technology, which Fox and other movie-making companies hope will become a new outlet for them to sell their entertainment content. It's Schilowitz's job to explore what consumers enjoy about virtual reality and what the content on it should resemble.
With Samsung planning to start selling headsets this year, Schilowitz says tryout stations will start popping up at places like mall kiosks, college campuses and anywhere that might draw a young, tech-edgy crowd.
Schilowitz' five-mile-high virtual reality show might be one of the strangest. "We are the sideshow circus-freak providers of the future," he said.
On one of his recent trips — to the Sundance Film Festival — the entire plane was buzzing about his Samsung Gear VR (in which a smartphone fits into a bracket on the goggles and acts as the screen). He showed off "Wild," one of the studio's major experiments in virtual reality filmmaking, to a co-worker, then an actress, her son and several others on the flight.
"The first thing they usually do when they take the headset off is they look to their neighbor ... next to them and say, 'You have to try this,'" Schilowitz said. "It's that kind of viral energy that's really fun to see."
In Schilowitz's vision of the future, passengers on trains, planes and cars won't be staring at "little rectangles" but rather into headsets.
"They are going to go someplace [virtually] and do whatever they want to do, whether that's watch a movie, watch a music video, watch YouTube, play a game, video chat or do work," he said.