So you've seen Avatar in 3D and marvelled at the special effects. Let's leave aside that the story itself was banal nonsense for the moment and just agree that, visually, it was pretty impressive. But while anyone over the age of 30 is still marvelling at how spectacular and immersive 3D is and anyone under 30 now expects everything to be in 3D there is a new dimension in the cinema-going experience trying to break through. I'm talking about 4D cinema.
I should say from the outset that 4D has actually been around for a couple of years already, though not in mainstream cinemas. But a Korean cinema in Seoul showed a 4D version of Avatar back in 2010, in fact. So what is 4D? Well, it brings the movement, smells, ambience and other manageable physical realities of the film you're watching to your seat. The trouble is, as I found out recently, it does it rather badly. At the moment, at least.
I had my first 4D experience recently in a small viewing room showing a film of one of the Apollo missions. For £5, the 15-minute show was disappointing. Leaving aside that the film was animated and not very realistically at that, considering what can be achieved with CGI these days the extra effects which made this experience 4D rather than 3D were almost amusingly bad.
The developers were trying, I could tell, but they just weren't delivering what I'd hoped. When the rocket took off, our seats vibrated; when the first section disengaged from the rest of the rocket, we lurched forward a bit (and any kids under the age of 10 went 'oooh! Ha, ha!'); then some small nozzles in front of each seat sent out a flurry of bubbles (I can't remember why); then, with the lunar buggy as our viewpoint, our seats lurched again as we bumped around on the lunar surface. And finally, when the capsule splashed down into the sea back on Earth, the seat nozzles sprayed us directly in the face with a pistol shot of water. Gee, thanks. (Oh, and the under-10s again went 'ooooh! Ha, ha!') Towels weren't provided
15 minutes of not very good cinema for £5 doesn't seem like too good a deal, to be honest. It would be fine if it was included as an attraction at Alton Towers or something (I remember being amazed at the 3D cinema some 20-odd years ago). In fact, the whole experience didn't strike me as being that much different than one of those shuttle-shaped simulators you have probably seen at bog-standard fairgrounds for many years now.
Moving on from the 4D Avatar screening in Seoul in 2010, the same city had 4D screenings of Kung Fu Panda 2 this summer. Every time Po (Jack Black's character the panda) got punched, kicked or fell down, the audience got gently pummelled in the relevant part of their body via massage motors in the chair. With my infamous low pain threshold (I have been known to say 'ow' when being hugged a bit too hard) I think I'd probably spoil the show for lots of people. There were also cases of seasickness when sudden chair movements were used with jolting gusto for Pirates Of The Caribbean, and even reports of temporary deafness I kid you not when Transformers: Dark Of The Moon was given the 4D treatment.
Hm, not sure nausea and deafness make great for a night out unless you're going clubbing and like to party hard, in which case I guess it kind of comes with the territory. Mind you, it also never bothered me for too long when staggering off the Waltzer in my local childhood fairground; all made immediately better by the consumption of some further nausea-inducing candy floss
So there is clearly a very long way to go before 4D is ready to be rolled out for general public consumption. Even then, the costs involved would be huge because each and every seat has to incorporate the same technology providing the same 'experience', involving movement, smells, ambience and so on. Thus far, Korea seems to be leading the way, with another three 4D cinemas currently being constructed, with one in New York also on the cards and further European expansion sometime soon. Apparently seats that tip right back and fly into the air will be the next progression. That's a positive for a very different reason, in my book: I won't have to sit next to some inconsiderate popcorn-munching pleb for much longer because the contents will be on the floor within the first few minutes, with any luck. Result.