Arts & Culture: What’s the Big Deal About Virtual Reality Films?

At the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) this past April, thousands of attendees donned bulky facial apparatus to immerse themselves in the latest mode of modern storytelling—virtual reality (VR) films. VR experiences, in which a viewer sees a 3-D image or environment, have been around for decades, but haven’t gained momentum in the entertainment industry until now. Thanks to the incredible technological developments of recent years, VR has gone from video game novelty to serious art form.


Virtual reality media has been evolving rapidly. Loren Austin Hammonds, the programmer for film and experiential projects at the Tribeca Film Festival, talked with us about how virtual reality is changing the nature of storytelling. “Virtual reality has been more demo experiences in the past,” he said. “Now there is more story content and we see creators putting story first.”


Through interactivity and immersion, new VR storytelling builds empathy, connecting people who might otherwise never interact. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab created “Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience” to give individuals a chance to virtually try on the shoes of someone experiencing serious financial challenges, eventually becoming homeless. “Imagine how viewers feel,” Hammonds said, “when they sit in that person’s virtual apartment, look around and pick up the treasured possessions they fear losing, see the eviction notice, and then finally experience being homeless, having lost it all.” Virtual reality storytelling has the ability to build bridges between people from very different cultures and circumstances.


Why is VR such a powerful storytelling tool? Jeffrey Travis, founder and CEO of Positron, a creative technology studio in Los Angeles that builds VR experiences and products, explained: “Any good storytelling should be able to make you forget about where you are and get lost in the story, but VR is able to create that at a whole new level. One study showed that VR triggers a different part of the brain, making the [VR] memories feel real. Creating a VR film is different because you are creating worlds, not just stories.”


And, according to Hammonds, even former skeptics, like Steven Spielberg, are jumping on the VR bandwagon as they recognize the possibilities for deepening the audience experience. Spielberg commissioned “The Last Goodbye,” a short VR documentary film presented at TFF this year that drew viewers into a photoreal room-scale experience of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter touring the Majdanek Concentration Camp.


Travis expects to see an explosion in new VR content in the next year. “Studios and creative directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Academy Award-winning director of “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” are working on new content using virtual reality technology,” he said. Travis’ company recently presented a Zero Gravity VR experience by Universal and IMAX in promotion of “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis. With big names like these working with the VR platform, audiences can be sure that technology advances will continue to improve the VR experience.


With its individual goggles and viewing chairs, current VR technology has some people concerned that VR experiences will promote viewer isolation and escapism. Hammonds, however, believes in its potential for good: “I’m hoping that the creators will lead the way—that the technology doesn’t inform what we’re expected to do. I believe in the art form—that it won’t lead to a world of people walking around in goggles or never going outside. It’s simply a platform for so many things: story, healthcare, education, and more.”


Travis also explained that the latest VR venues are more social. “People don’t have all the [latest VR] hardware at their house, but now they can go somewhere locally to try it out.” MK2, a new VR center in France, was created to be a place to hang out and be social around various VR experiences. “They found that it can be more social than a movie theater, as viewers roam through the exhibits and talk about their different experiences over a beer.”


If you can’t make it out to NYC’s own VR cinema and playlab, “Jump Into The Light,” you can check out VR content on your mobile phone, laptop, or with a Google Cardboard viewer. For better quality imaging, make use of carefully crafted headgear like the Oculus Rift or HTC VIVE. There are also VR gloves and suits available that help you engage more of your body. Most recently, Jeffrey Travis and his team at Positron developed Voyager, a full-motion VR chair that, with the help of goggles, gives audiences 4-D film experiences and decreases the risk of motion sickness.


The landscape of virtual reality is changing rapidly as new technology emerges, and with these changes come more opportunities to be immersed in a new world. Just by putting on headgear, viewers can leap into someone else’s story and connect deeply with ideas, people, and places they might never otherwise experience. For this reason alone, virtual reality films are truly a big deal. So, if you haven’t donned the goggles yet, now is the time.

By Sunita Puleo

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