A moment from The Book of Distance. National Film Board of Canada
I booted up my gaming laptop and untangled the wires from the VR headset. Linked up the pieces, cleared away floor space to walk in. Moved the kids' remote learning stuff. Then, after downloading a multi-GB app on Steam as my laptop fans whirr, I was finally ready. I put on the headset, walked into a virtual museum and cried nearly nonstop for half an hour.
Attending an art festival virtually isn't the same as my experiences from previous years, when I'd walk through blocked-off physical spaces artfully choreographed to blend actual objects and virtual worlds in wild experiences. I never attended Sundance, but at Tribeca's yearly Immersive showcase there would always be a handful of moments that felt like immersive theater for VR.
This year, Cannes XR and Tribeca have launched a free showcase of virtual works online, via Steam and an app called The Museum of Other Realities. The experience, and the app, run for free until July 3. You need a VR-ready PC and PC VR headset (an Oculus Quest will work with the right USB-C cable) to take it all in, which means other phone-based, game console and standalone devices like Oculus Quest (without a PC) and PlayStation VR are excluded. But I took a quick dive on the first day of the showcase and was immediately rewarded with a moment I'll never forget.
It was never easy for anyone to attend the often expensive and exclusive immersive art festivals at places like Sundance, but for anyone interested in attending from home, the unfortunate shutting-down of physical spaces, conferences and festivals due to COVID-19 has led to lots of experimentation. I watched 360-degree videos from Tribeca on an Oculus Quest earlier this year, which was one attempt to distribute immersive art. But this virtual showcase of VR art, being hosted by a social VR museum app called The Museum of Other Realities, feels like one of the first real tests of putting a larger-scale event into a virtual world. Especially as a free event, it's well worth your time over the next few days to attend.
I'd never been in The Museum of Other Realities before, even though it's become a popular spot for hosting immersive art and AR/VR events over the past few months. Entering the VR app from Steam feels like entering a museum, with sloping curved walls and a grand but neutral design. Inside, curated exhibits wait behind hallways, like a real museum space. Signs for Tribeca and Cannes XR events point the way when you enter.
I found a VR experience in Tribeca's Virtual Arcade called The Book of Distance, a VR experience created by Randall Okita and produced by David Oppenheim and the National Film Board of Canada that previously appeared at this year's Sundance festival. It's an absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking story about the artist's grandfather, who moved from Japan to Canada and ended up being displaced and having his possessions taken as his family was put in an internment camp during World War II.
Entering the space for the experience, I found a room of photographs and virtual personal mementos, leading to an area that took me into the story. It was told using theater-like set pieces, objects I could pick up and examine, photographs and documents I could hold before they blew away or slowly dissipated. I took photos of a family with a virtual camera that turned into real photographic documents that I held, in VR, for a moment. I learned about history I hadn't known about. The narration and audio, all of it, felt like an experience from a museum, but also a transporting event. The experience was mapped to my available floor space, which isn't much. It worked well enough for me to take a few steps through spaces like a customs desk, or when packing possessions into a briefcase. My tears were constant. The experience was profound.
The Museum of Other Realities displays art in a larger virtual venue. Other visitors appear as ghost-like abstract avatars. Museum of Other Realities
Is this a future of immersive conferences?
This was only one immersive experience, but there are more. If you have a headset and a VR-ready PC, dive in, it's free. The app download takes a while and requires a fair amount of hard drive space. I miss the real human guidance at real immersive physical events, the onboarding that helps you sink into another world and then reflect as you come back out. I miss the conversations with others. In my house it was me, alone, in an empty room.
The Museum of Other Realities allows some conversations with guests, but I found it confusing. Avatars show up like ghosts. I couldn't figure out how to engage people and start to talk. I ended up drifting away, to the next exhibit.
While massive conferences like Apple's WWDC are largely being handled via video presentations and chat apps, there's also the possibility of using VR or AR to transport you into communal experiences. Some companies like Spatial are working on it. Extremely curated art exhibits, like those in the Tribeca/Cannes event, help.
"At the very beginning, of course, I was a bit disappointed not to be able to deliver the real life edition, especially because right before the real-life lockdown, we announced a new venue at Cannes dedicated to XR and to me it was a very cool achievement," Elie Levasseur, Program Leader for Cannes XR, said over a phone call ahead of the festival.
"But over the course of organizing this [virtual] design, I feel even more excited. If you ask me right now, I will tell you for sure that I would like to have a virtual space even in 2021, because I feel that it's complementary." But Levasseur also admits that real life, especially for artists, is still key too. "Artists need to have a physical connection with the public, with the decision makers, with people who can distribute their work. This is really important for them to have a physical connection at some point."
There are real advantages to having online presentation of virtual works, especially to reduce costs for artists. "We can say to artists, let's have this online edition, you don't need to travel, you don't need to rent a flat for a week at Cannes which is really expensive. For us, the break-even is far more accessible for the online edition than on the real edition," Levasseur adds.
In that sense, a physical immersive event still makes sense, especially for artists and those in the business. But maybe what I'm witnessing now from home is the beginning of a way to distribute those immersive ideas widely, much like films make their way from festivals to theaters to homes.
As experiences everywhere are more virtual and performers and artists find their way, it'll likely be a long time before we figure out how to make telepresence work perfectly, but my first moments in this immersive festival already made me think it'll be a key part of the larger picture, even beyond lockdowns.