Right now virtual reality (VR) seems to be a zero billion dollar business, at least in terms of revenue generation. A huge amount of seemingly smart money is investing in VR, with applications across entertainment, medicine, travel and other industries. As to the entertainment and media space, each of the major studios is secretly or otherwise investigating VR. And so are the big theatre chains, mobile phone companies, writers and directors.
The issues that are being tackled range across myriad aspects:
- * If the viewer can control the pace and means by which the plot unfolds, what does that do to the centuries-old basics of storytelling? Put another way, when I see a film by Martin Scorsese or read a book by Dan Winslow, I do so because I want to enjoy their storytelling prowess. I defer to their choices, and I have little if any involvement in changing what they have created.
- * The expense of VR hardware is a hurdle for many, so what about a theatrical model? But going to a public place means the vendor will need to overcome people’s reticence about putting VR rigs on their face, knowing many other folks have done so before. The theatre chains have mostly figured out the far less intrusive issues of 3D eyeglasses, but the best VR equipment expensively eliminates all outside stimuli and hence becomes a pretty intimate experience. Will I be comfortable that the VR equipment has been sufficiently sanitized before I strap it in?
- * Once all of the foregoing issues have been resolved, there remains the biological reality that most people get nauseous after about 12 minutes of VR. The disparity between what your senses are telling you and what you are experiencing in VR are not synchronous, and the body reacts accordingly.
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu arrives on May 23, 2017 for the '70th Anniversary' ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Notwithstanding these and various other hurdles, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s has poured his significant talents into a conceptual virtual reality installation called CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible). His command directing films like The Revenant, Birdman and Babel clearly evidence Iñárritu’s massive talent. For the installation he collaborated with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work on Gravity nearly defined explanation. Presently on view at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the installation explores the human condition of immigrants and refugees. After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival and after an extensive build out at LACMA, the public is now able to experience Iñárritu’s vision:
During the past four years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees. Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project. My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.
I was able to experience CARNE y ARENA and was very impressed.
CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)
The experience lasted about 15 minutes, with the VR element comprising the middle 6½ minutes. I was directed through a dark curtain, to read a statement from Iñárritu setting the stage. Next I walked into a bare room, which was intentionally uncomfortably cold. I was directed to remove my shoes and wait. Around the floor were other shoes, all collected along the Mexican border. As I looked more closely at the shoes, I saw many kids’ shoes. The weight of the experience began to grow; the Border Patrol requires captives to remove their shoes. As the cement floor seemed to grow colder, an alarm eventually sounded, which was the signal to head through another door. Into a fairly low light room strewn with pebbles and dirt I tentatively walked toward two technicians. One loaded me with a backpack, perhaps holding some of the VR processing equipment but certainly to make me feel more like a refugee trying to cross into America. The other technician mounted my headset and earphones, and advised me to explore anywhere I wanted, but to move slow.
Soon I was transported to a dusty no man’s land at dusk. I lurched through the space with the dry grittiness of pebbles and dust under my toes, the chill of my bare feet and the wind kicking up. Soon I was aware of a group of about 8 people moving toward me. My Spanish is minimal at best but there was no confusing the terror and shouts as the border patrol descended on us. The anonymous flying terror of the helicopter spotlight and the large ordnance and firepower in my face at ground level was alarmingly real.
I was mostly an invisible observer.
In other words, Iñárritu had successfully taken me into a story and a world he created, making the massive technology nearly invisible and getting me totally absorbed.
During the last third of the installation I was able to review the faces of the people whose true stories were blended into what I had just witnessed (experienced). In the days since, my recurring question remains: what would Trump make of this VR experience?
CARNE y ARENA is a very successful glimpse into how VR can be melded into and transform a storyteller’s vision.