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A Virtual Reality Revolution, Coming to a Headset Near You

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Virtual reality — once the stuff of science fiction — is still in its infancy. But there’s already a gold rush around the technology, which plunges viewers into a simulated 3-D environment and lets them explore their surroundings as if they were really there.

Technology and entertainment giants are betting billions that virtual reality is much more than a passing fad, one that will revolutionize the way we experience movies, news, sporting events, video games and more.

Meanwhile, filmmakers and other creators are grappling with an entirely new storytelling language and dealing with some formidable challenges — claustrophobic headsets that can make people cybersick.

The competition to dominate this space begins in earnest these next few months, with the arrival of newfangled, affordably priced headsets from Samsung, Sony, HTC and Facebook (which paid $2 billion last year for a virtual reality startup called Oculus VR). And Disney, Comcast, Time Warner and Legendary Entertainment are just a few of the entertainment companies plunking down millions of dollars in a mad dash to create content for these machines. By 2025, the market for virtual reality content will be $5.4 billion, according to the Piper Jaffray investment bank. The hardware component will be worth $62 billion.

“We’re at the brick-size cellphone days of VR,” said Ted Schilowitz, the in-house futurist at 20th Century Fox. “The technology works. It’s remarkable. But it is nowhere near good enough, on any front, to take on mass, mass adoption.”

Yet, he added, “every few months, we’re reaching closer to the target.”

Without compelling content, even the most impressive piece of technology won’t appeal to more than a hardy band of early adopters. One of the more high-profile experiments at filling that void is taking place over at Mr. Schilowitz’s studio, where the director Robert Stromberg (“Maleficent”), Ridley Scott and the Fox Innovation Lab are putting the final touches on a virtual reality companion to “The Martian,” Mr. Scott’s hit film. In the 15-to-20-minute film, to be released early next year, viewers will become the stranded astronaut (played by Matt Damon in the feature film) as they navigate the planet and attempt tasks to stay alive. They will even get to experience zero gravity in space and drive the rover on Mars.

Here, some of the other pioneers in film, journalism, sports and gaming talk about the potential and struggles of building a new art form from the ground up.

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