This is Part 2 of my Sundance Blog for 2015.
Part 1 (about movies & panels I attended or spoke on) can be read here.
All Photographs by Jendra Jarnagin
THE YEAR OF VIRTUAL REALITY
I always make a point to spend enough time at the New Fronteir gallery space: where Sundance showcases cutting edge video art, often installations. This year, it was all about VR. In fact, they should do a dedicated VR lounge next year as its own venue to get more viewing stations, and also to open the gallery back up to things beyond VR.
You had to get there an hour before it opened to line up in order to get a space in line for the day’s reservations of all the VR experiences and exhibits. Luckily, while hanging around, I got to jump in the standby lines to do Birdly and Perspective, Chapter 1: The Party. I also did the Google Cardboard workshop.
My fascination with VR isn’t technical, its emotional and about the changing relationship between creator and viewer.
I have done several VR viewings in the past, between last year’s Sundance, and the Tribeca film festival 2014. At Tribeca, after much internal tribulation, I even chose NOT to experience something that was intentionally designed to be traumatic. I decided it was an experience I did not want to have. For example, at Sundance, my husband experienced a VR piece of a bomb going off in Syria. I never had the opportunity to do that one because of the wait times, but I likely would have had a similar internal debate and asked a ton of questions before choosing to go through with it. It’s not just entertainment. It can be designed to evoke strong emotions: empathy, helplessness, chaos and confusion, and make you confront your contextual decision making. I am of the belief that viewers need to be primed about the content and experience they are about to have, especially if they are a VR virgin, who might have the expectation that they are just WATCHING something, not experiencing it. We are used to being detached in our observation of some pretty shocking films. “Oh it’s just a film” we tell ourselves. VR is COMPLETELY different. You are hearing, seeing, interacting, examining, and especially FEELING. On an emotional and sometimes physiological level, things as if what you are “viewing” are really happening to you, with you, etc.
The way that interactive storytelling is evolving so quickly and the world of VR content is absolutely fascinating to me. The way we can create experiences for viewers that go beyond passive consumption is incredibly intimate and really connects people. You are not just watching something, you are HAVING AN EXPERIENCE. I could go on and on about some of the unexpected feelings I have experienced while experiencing various content. Some intensely personal. And that’s that thing you have to account for the psyche of your “audience” like never before, and even think about your responsibility in what you are putting someone through…. It’s a whole new world of engaging with viewers, and I find it endlessly fascinating.
Birdly was insanely incredible!
This piece probably had the strongest word of mouth for the entire film festival, so I had high expectations. AND IT STILL BLEW MY MIND. This was the most throughly integrated VR experience I have yet to encounter, and I didn’t even realize that “we were there yet,” in terms of the technology and the user experience still being in its infancy. You are flying above San Francisco, as a bird. You glide, float, steer, flap your wings, as the sounds go by and the wind in your face accelerates with your speed. It was a totally immersive exhilarating PHYSICAL experience where I really felt and believed I was flying!
Perspective, Chapter 1: The Party was an entirely different experience.
You go through the story twice, as the female and the male perspective of a drunken hook up gone wrong at a college house party. It was designed to make you feel woozy, and I got physically sick from this one. I debated aborting the experience twice due to nausea. I had to recover by resting alone quietly for about 20 minutes afterward before I felt well enough to move along. And other than the dizzying effects, I also experienced a mental disconnect where my conscious and unconscious were arguing with one another: through my eyes things were happening to me and because of me (my character) that I (my SELF) did not choose, would not have chosen, and was completely emotionally uncomfortable with. I realized I prefer VR experiences where I am in control and can make choices as to my actions. Otherwise if I don’t agree with what I am doing, its hard to be quite as engaged. But of course for this piece, the whole point was about the choices being made by the characters and getting to experience a point of view that I would not have chosen, thus the conundrum…
Here is a journalist’s account of the experience of the piece, which is far more in-depth, and worth a read if you are into this stuff:
I had a mind-exploding impassioned conversation with the director Rose Troche at the Film Fatales party. It was before I had seen the piece for myself, and just had heard about it. But having done other VR viewings in the past, and knowing the premise and purpose of her VR film, it was a really invigorating conversation/respectful debate about responsibility to the viewer now that our relationship as media makers is changing from passive and within an established box, to uncharted territory: active, conscious, potentially triggering and/or deeply emotional.
Click here to learn What is Google Cardboard?
Google Cardboard had ongoing workshops, of which I attended one, where they gave out the cardboard viewers to keep. We assembled the devices, and they had pre-loaded movies as apps on phones ready for us to view. The films were more entertainment-based than the ones I described above. There were still fun and worthwhile experiences.
“Evolution of Verse” by Chris Milk with Digital Domain
A beautiful & moving eye-candy piece
A Godzilla like creature on a rampage.
I believe both are available on either Google Play or IOS at this link.
What does the future hold?
I’m excited to check out the offerings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival! And then I wonder, as more content becomes available, what kinds of venues will there be outside of film festivals to view VR? Will there be permanent VR cinema/lounges where artists (or their trained facilitators) can interact with (and even discuss and forewarn) their viewers? I think just releasing stand-alone content to anonymous headset owners misses a lot of the potential of how personal these experiences are. And for some of the kinds of edgy, boundary-pushing content, that I find the most interesting, unattended home viewings could even be traumatic for viewers that don’t have the experience to discuss their experience and feelings. Will we have a new ratings system for VR by the MPAA or other advisory board, based on the nature of the content, and its ability to evoke strong or disturbing emotions?
I leave you with a fascinating article about someone’s first experience watching VR porn. I must admit, I am really not into porn at all, but I am fascinated by this premise of intimacy and am curious to check out where that industry will take VR…
Article: I Tried VR Porn and It Was Weird
What do you think of VR? Ethical debates, emotional reactions, potential for bringing humanity together though empathy? Creating new visual languages? Sure it will revolutionize gaming in exciting ways, but will it replace movies, Skype, in-person social interaction? Or is just another medium to add to our consumption options? I welcome comments below, or links to other interesting related content!