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We're on the edge of VR breaking into the mainstream in a serious way, and everyone from game developers to journalists are trying to stake their claims and win over audiences.

BY SETH PORGES

HTC Vive virtual reality head-set (Photo: Courtesy HTC)

HTC Vive virtual reality head-set (Photo: Courtesy HTC)

When virtual reality first became a buzzword in the 1990s, the headsets were clunky, the price tags astronomical, the screen resolutions grainy, and the content nearly nonexistent. And while sci-fi movies like The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic made the technology seem like it was just an infobahn ride away from allowing you to do or be anything you could imagine, the industry reality made the tech as big a flop as those forgotten films. 

But as we now enter a new golden age of VR, things really could be different. For one, the new tech actually works, with wieldier devices now offering crisp visuals and precise tracking of head movements as we stare into a virtual space. And as billions of dollars are being thrown at this brave new world by the likes of Facebook and Samsung and marquee headsets like the Oculus Rift (which Facebook owns) and HTC Vive hit shelves, it’s almost inevitable that the media will eventually become as packaged and predictable as a laugh-tracked sitcom. 

But we’re not there yet. With the VR world still in the what-the-hell-is-this-thing-anyway phase, there exists a unique opportunity for experimentation as filmmakers, game designers, media companies, and artists look to the technology as a new way to tell stories and manipulate emotions. For both creatives and consumers, it’s an exciting time. “None of us have any clue what this is going to turn into,” says Lyndon Barrois, an animator who has worked on dozens of movies, including The Matrix trilogy, and now makes VR content as a partner at Blackthorn Media. “But to be on the cusp of actually defining what it is—it’s really fucking exciting.” 

A still from The Martian VR experience by 20th Century Fox. (Photo: Courtesy Fox)

A still from The Martian VR experience by 20th Century Fox. (Photo: Courtesy Fox)

Nowhere was this attitude more evident than this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where two separate experiential media showcases gave filmmakers, animators, game-makers, and media companies an opportunity to flex their new muscles. At the Storyscapes showcase, The Guardian and content creation studio The Mill showed off a 360-degree documentary (this is where the viewer has no control over what unfolds) called 6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement that simulated the claustrophobia of a prison cell. Just steps away, at the Virtual Arcade showcase, a BBC-produced short called The Turning Forest put viewers on the back of a Falkor-eque beast as it flew high above a fairytale sea. One of these experiences felt so confining that some viewers had to stop before the end of its nine-minute runtime. The other was so expansive that some people may find it hard not to flap their arms like wings.

Which brings us to what is perhaps the most impressive work of VR-based storytelling created thus far. Allumette, which also premiered at Tribeca, is a 20-minute silent animated virtual reality experience that uses the technology to summon a sense of discovery, awe, and almost unbelievable grief. Viewers strap on HTC Vive headsets—some of the first that allow users to move through space by actually walking around a room—as they virtually explore a fantastical city in the clouds.

A scene from Janicza Bravo's Hard World for Small Things. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

A scene from Janicza Bravo's Hard World for Small Things. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

At first, the inclination is to just watch the action unfold. But once you realize you can step through the walls of buildings and flying ships and see characters move around within them, the story—and platform—begins to unlock. Just as immersive theater shows such as Sleep No More in New York have become popular for their capacity to let attendees follow different storylines or characters as they wander through a large theatrical space, Allumette teases the narrative possibilities that come from being able to roam a virtual space while disparate action and characters swirl within. At times you feel like an omniscient giant, floating above a cloud city. But step a few feet forward and you can move your head into the same place as a character’s, allowing you to watch the action unfold from their pathos-filled POV. It isn’t just a gimmick, either. Allumette is the sort of animated tearjerker that will hit home to anybody who cried at the beginning of Up. After all, with a VR headset on, nobody can see your tears. 

This ability to trick your brain and senses into feeling like you are a character in the story is what drew filmmakers like Eric Darnell, who directed mainstream fare such as the Madagascar series and recently made an animated VR short called Invasion!, to the technology. “Other characters in the world recognize you exist and come up and look you in the eye,” Darnell says.  

For those who have never tried VR, this is perhaps the most difficult part to understand in an abstract sense. You may consciously know you’re in an office building or a living room, but without the defined borders of a movie screen or TV, a well-executed production can trick your nervous system into thinking the virtual world being presented is real. The result can be raw and visceral. “There’s so much that happens in your reptile brain in VR,” Darnell says. “I can’t bring myself to stand on the edge of a cliff in it, and if you find yourself in a fiery environment, you actually feel hot.” 

One of the interactive VR experiences at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

One of the interactive VR experiences at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

This immersion is also why major media companies are putting so many resources into the technology as a journalistic and storytelling tool, but also as a way to give advertisers a means to hold onto viewers’ focus in the midst of a multitasking world. To date, The New York Times has created seven VR and 360 films, another eight experiences for advertisers such as G.E. and Hilton, and a dedicated app that has so far scored more than 600,000 downloads. “We think VR is best when it takes you somewhere you can’t go on your own,” says Sam Dolnick, associate editor at the Times. “We can take our audience to Pluto, to Iraq, to the most exclusive fashion houses, to the artists studio, to breaking news scenes, and more.”

Hollywood has taken notice as well. While most major content related to VR currently consists of short experiences designed to promote a major release, studios’ access to money, marketing, big-name talent, and relationships with theaters could push the platform to new heights. After all, if James Cameron wanted to design a big-budget experience—perhaps in conjunction with his thematically relevant film Avatar—it’s hard not to imagine him getting the financial and promotional support required to make it a mass-market must-see. “We don’t just want these just to be little 30-second marketing stunts,” says Ted Gagliano, president of feature post product for 20th Century Fox, which produced a well-regarded VR experience for The Martian. “Sure, those will be interesting for a second, but we want to create experiences that people will want to repeat and do differently.”

Someone experiencing VR at the Tribeca Film Festival with an Oculus Rift. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

Someone experiencing VR at the Tribeca Film Festival with an Oculus Rift. (Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

For storytellers, VR also creates a different quandary: How do you navigate this murky zone between a video game and a scripted film? If you give viewers a sense of agency and control over their experience, you risk losing command of your vision and authorship of the story. “I believe you can have a totally linear storyline while still having an explorable scene,” says Isaac Cohen, an artist who has been building virtual worlds for the past four years. “It’s about giving people the semblance of sovereignty without letting them screw up the storyline itself.”

This is an area that artists will continue experimenting with, and it’s clear that some could thrive in this grey area. As increased possibilities for immersion give participants more control over their experience, new commercial opportunities become obvious. Soon, it may no longer be just about film and games, adding another dimension to the commerce of the very
Internet itself. “Amazon will have an amazing flagship store in VR where you can go inside and maybe sit down with Oscar Wilde, and he’ll tell you about the book he’s written, or you can go into the Nike store and sit down with Lebron James and hear about his latest shoe before a basketball court opens up and he shoots some hoops,” says Tino Schaedler, an architect and storyteller who has worked with artists such as Kanye West and Daft Punk, and has collaborated with The Weeknd on VR content. “The Internet will become three-dimensional, and, in five years, almost every aspect of our life will be infused with VR.”