The nascent form of entertainment known as virtual reality is still figuring out both its business model and its creative place. How all this content will be distributed to the public, and monetized, remains elusive.
The same could be said of the optimal kind of VR stories — how much to involve the viewer is one (but hardly the only) of the questions surrounding the medium.
For now, there is a lot of start-up money funding a lot of experimentation. And the Tribeca Film Festival, which wrapped Sunday, has been one of the few places to premiere those forays.
On a day when the Oculus Go was released to glowing reviews, VR has become more relevant than ever. Here are three pieces from among the dozens to premiere at Tribeca that created buzz and showed potential ways forward for the medium.
iNK Stories, a New York-based start-up, has been tinkering with experimental narratives for a while. But none feel as visceral as this location-based piece, in which the user is transported to Syria to experience a bombing and its aftereffects. The full-body-movement experience — disturbing enough that a quiet space was set aside for users to decompress after it ended — opens on an innocuous courtyard. Then a bombing overhead causes the ground to shake, a blast of fire reaches the face of the user and the cries of a child make their way through the chaos. Hearing the cries of a child, users then crawl through a bombed-out skyscraper, the charred sight of a destroyed city below, to save the child. Not for the faint of heart, the piece, from iNK Stories founders Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari, shows how VR can not only heighten experience but also bring home political realities.
“We want a wide range of people to have an affecting experience and maybe even change their outlook, and nothing does that like ‘Hero,’ ” Loren Hammonds, who runs Tribeca’s immersive section, told The Washington Post. There’s even a potential to bring the piece to Washington to screen for lawmakers and raise awareness about the Syrian conflict.
Start-ups and Oculus aren’t the only way these pieces are getting made — private universities have been backing some of them. After all, they have the innovators and they have the cash. One of the leaders has been Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, run by founding director Jeremy Bailenson. At Tribeca the lab unveiled a new piece, “1000 Cut Journey,” meant to put the user in the shoes of a black man at different stages of his life. (It was created in concert with Courtney Cogburn, a Columbia University researcher, who oversaw the social-science aspects.)
Beginning in kindergarten, continuing through high school and culminating in a job interview, “Cut” drives home the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination faced by the main character (a stop-and-frisk, for instance). That the user inhabits the person of the main character — “try on your new body,” s/he is told as they see themselves in the mirror as the young man of color — amplifies the effect. Police officers, a potential employer and a schoolteacher all look directly at the user in a way that can be involving and disorienting — and show how VR will press ahead in ways very different from more passive film and television. “Engaging people this way makes them feel empathy, and that’s more powerful than just making a movie about an issue,” said Elise Ogle, who works at the Lab with Bailenson.
There’s another twist to this VR aspect — users are observed and questioned in a way that can be used for social research (with their permission, of course). “A lot of research is looking at data,” Cogburn said. “Embodiment gives you a different window.”
Baobab Studios, the company behind this piece, is the most straightforwardly Silicon Valley — 18 months ago it received $25 million from a wide consortium of entertainment players that included Fox and CAA. It was also co-founded by “Madagascar” director Eric Darnell.
All that mainstream money doesn’t mean its efforts are conventional, though, This piece, a loose riff on the “Jack & The Beanstalk” legend via French director Mathias Chelebourg, is best experienced fresh in a large room — actually, it can only be experienced there. (“I craft stories you can walk in,” is Chelebourg’s tagline.)
Essentially, “Jack” is a piece of interactive theater that makes use of VR, and while to reveal what unfolds is to give away its pleasures, suffice to say it creates a measure of reality and interactivity that underscores just what new platforms such as Oculus Go can do. (Basically, live out a fairy tale firsthand, right down to the parental disapproval. Hey, no one said VR was therapeutic.)
“Our goal was to bring storytelling to the next level with a complete multisensory experience in VR like no other — to blur the boundaries between what’s real and imagined,” said Kane Lee, the company’s head of content.
That the piece contains elements of theater makes wide distribution tricky; you wouldn’t really get the full effect without a large space and crew. Lee and other Baobab executives say they’re figuring out various forms of distribution so it can reach a larger number of people on headsets such as the Oculus without requiring a trip to a local film festival. When it comes to VR, seeing is believing — it’s just a matter of getting those eyeballs.