“There’s 57 channels and nothin’ on,” Bruce Springsteen sang in 1992. How quaint. Twenty-five years later, there are at least 10 times that many channels, instant access to more films than anyone can watch in a lifetime, and 400 hours of new video uploaded to YouTube every minute. Sisyphus himself might pity me for all the shows, movies, and videos I feel obligated to inhale in a single day. With these pre-existing media breaking new ground seemingly every week, I could be forgiven for my profound disinterest in virtual reality until now, right?
It’s not just exhaustion that’s kept me away from VR. I’ve never thought of myself as the right demo for the tech: I’m not a gamer, a gearhead, or an early adopter. I also don’t mind a passive viewing experience. Based on the reports of nausea-inducing software and burdensome facial contraptions, well, isn’t life hard enough to get through without paying someone to suffer even more? And there’s something particularly dispiriting about the gadget market these days, with its parade of redundancies: tablets, fitness trackers, smart watches. My home is already littered with unused electronics. Plus, isn’t there something intrinsically sad and scary about virtual reality anyway, as it inevitably becomes a haven for maladjusted weirdoes destined to unwittingly star in their very own episode of Black Mirror?
And then, within a matter of hours, I became a VR convert.
Virtual reality, as I’d expected and feared, is extremely easy to love. My years-delayed rendezvous with the technology took place in Los Angeles this week, at Engadget’s Alternate Realities conference and the Tech Showcase at this year’s AFI Film Festival, two gatherings where creators working at the forefront of the medium showed off their stuff. I almost threw up twice. But I also walked away convinced that after years of dubious-sounding hype, we now are actually witnessing the beginning of a new artistic medium—one with its own unique canvas, visual language, ways of watching, and narrative possibilities.
My favorite of the VR projects I experienced was also the most nakedly ambitious. The first 15 minutes of Arden’s Wake, directed by Pixar alum Eugene Chung, aim for both emotional connection and technical achievement. (It won the Best VR Film award at this year’s Venice Film Festival and showed this week at AFI Fest.) An original story that feels like a girl-power twist on The Little Mermaid (with a dash of the mythical horror of The Secret of Kells), the film begins in the wooden house in the middle of the sea that the teenage Arden shares with her grizzled and widowed inventor father. A boy comes calling in a rowboat, the household turns topsy-turvy, and before you know it, Arden’s father falls into the water, and she sets off to rescue him in the homemade submarine he’d just finished building. The opening chapter of Arden’s Wake ends with a witchy sea monster circling the submarine and swallowing it whole.
If the story feels a tad derivative, the sublime animation will instantly wash such reservations away. As with nearly all the VR movies I saw, I turned around to get a 360-degree view of my surroundings, then looked up to stare at the sky and down to gaze into the deep. Arden’s Wake begins with me looking at its protagonist’s half-dome home floating on the water from the outside, a giant window blaring at one side to peek through. But I had just heard Chung speak at the Engadget event about VR’s lack of elementality, the assumption that solid materials are solid—and an assumption that his film cannily explodes. I snuck a look through the “window” of the home, then simply walked through the exterior like a ghost. It was like being inside of a gorgeous dollhouse, with dozens of things to look at, rendered in such fine animation that the first thing I noticed was the photorealistic grain of the wood of the walls. But the experience was about a lot more than exploring; I appreciated how Arden’s Wake taught me to watch it as it was telling me a story. A light directed my gaze in one direction, a movement in another, a sound to a third corner. I turned my head when Arden did; my identification with the character was sealed with our coordinated motions. (VR offers a distinctly tactile mode of watching in other ways, since many projects invite viewers to move their bodies around. Such movements might change what you see or experience, and the medium dampens its viewers’ self-consciousness, since the headset prevents them from being able to see what they look like in front of others.) As Arden’s submarine sunk lower and lower, I kept looking up at the increasingly murky surface of the water. My VR headset fit imperfectly—light spilled in from the space between my cheeks and the goggles—but I felt colder and more claustrophobic as she and I kept sinking into the ocean.
Greater immersion is the primary objective of virtual reality, but the spherical canvas it allows for can be utilized in other ways, too. Wes Hurley’s autobiographical documentary Potato Dreams, also at AFI Fest, uses tableaux vivants, or actors in pose, to evoke the gay artist and his mail-order-bride mother’s escape from a hostile Soviet Union. I rotated in a swivel chair to watch all the “living pictures”—a process similar to observing a collage or montage but which wasn’t quite either—and occasionally glanced upward at a menacing man peering down at me. The floor “fell away” sometimes, leaving me feeling unmoored, in a spatial suggestion of the social isolation that Hurley felt due to Russian homophobia. The glowering from above and the rootlessness below made me feel simultaneously constrained and desperately alone. It was difficult to imagine a version of this in 2-D.
The wildest place the AFI Tech Showcase took me to was inside a seed. Milica Zec and Winslow Porter’s Tree exemplifies one of virtual reality’s implicit promises: to plunge us so deeply into any situation that it’ll upend our ideas of what a protagonist or a story should be, and not just in a Pixar-y “what if your stuff had feelings?” kind of way. The intensely sensorial Tree puts you inside of the titular plant during its journey from a seed to a kapok tree towering over the Amazon, where deforestation looms. We’ve all heard statistics about the importance of the Amazon, but Tree, which was made in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, manages to sentimentalize its protagonist and give it a narrative arc without pretending that a plant is anything more than a plant.
I counted 10 pieces of equipment that made the Tree experience possible: laptops, the VR headset, headphones, a vibrating backpack, hand sensors, a wind machine, a scent sprayer, matches, and a seed that I placed into a pot before the video. Every VR film or game that I experienced necessitated an attendant who disinfected the headset, put it and any other equipment on me, explained how to watch or play the project at hand, provided guidance when necessary, made sure I wasn’t going to trip over wires or bump into anything, and took the equipment off when it was over. For Tree, the attendant went above and beyond by lighting a match to simulate the smell of a burning forest and waving the smoke around me. I loved the smell-o-vision, but it seemed to confirm a reality no one who was hoping VR would become the next consumer must-have wanted to admit: This technology is nowhere near ready for mass adoption, at least for narrative entertainment.
Let’s start with the attendants, who are instrumental in not only teaching people how to use the tech (instruction that can be added to the software), but also make sure users don’t walk into walls. It’s not realistic to expect someone will monitor our well-being every time we put on an Oculus Rift, of course, but walking or flailing around is one of the things that make virtual reality so distinct as a medium. And a chaperone who tells us how to use or not use the headset honestly sounds kind of nice, since each one seems like it should come with a list of side effects the way drugs do: nausea, headache, eye strain, dizziness, motion sickness. Perhaps most relevantly to home use, I’m just not sure who wants to stand around in their living room for half an hour, let alone the time it’d take to watch a movie or play an extended game, as VR content inevitably experiments more with long-form content.
Screens and headsets are destined to become thinner and less calamitous to the inner ear, and VR has a good chance to supplement, if not supplant, our watching and gaming experiences. But creatively, at least, virtual-reality content shouldn’t have to be long to be taken seriously. Technological hurdles have given us (and taken away) new forms of short-form storytelling: the six-second Vine, the 10-minute YouTube video, the 140- and then 280-character tweet. Content creators can thrive under limitations, and frequently do. As the VR projects I experienced demonstrated, the current handicaps of the tech haven’t gotten much in the way of creativity and experimentation.
As far as I can tell, the only difference between a museum installation and a narrative VR film is that the installation calls itself art while VR wants to be commerce. I’ll leave it to the bajillionaires to figure out how to make money off this astounding technology. But the 15-minute VR experience is a pretty great new art form already.