Virtual reality is undoubtedly alluring, but that doesn't mean it's not without consequence. With technology this seductive (and VR is nothing if not seductive), it's easy to imagine a dystopian future where we sit around in pods all day, plugged into fantastic worlds as our homes burn down around us. For the pessimists among us, this may seem like the only plausible outcome for tech with the power and pull of VR. But, if you talk to the people who actually develop VR (and have a vested interest in its success), they'll often say VR has the potential to save us as well.
I've never really understood the optimism of the tech community. When I was working on a feature about VR for this paper last year, I would bring up doomsday, Black Mirror-like scenarios with everyone I interviewed. In my imagining of this future, people forgo the real world (dreary as is it) for the entirely constructed world of VR. I mean, why would you not? Virtual reality is so much richer than the real thing. The response I got to this question was always the same: "Years ago people said TV would ruin the world too," the techies told me, at which point I would remind them that without the advent of TV, there would be no President Donald Trump.
Still, more than one VR developer insisted that this tech could be, not just neutral, but actually good for humankind. One developer even had a handy tagline to describe it: "better living through tech." In his vision of the future, VR will be an "engine of empathy"—a means of traveling to far off locales and experiencing the way other people live without leaving your house or even putting on pants. At the time, this sounded to me like a load of BS, and while I still think many of the people and companies developing this technology are sadly myopic about the possible repercussions of their work, after visiting the SIFF VR Zone this week, I began to see that potential good they were talking about.
VR, at this moment, is largely a solitary experience. Yes, there are multi-player video games, but outside of gaming, it's mostly technology for one. This is clearly apparent when you walk in the SIFF VR Zone. When I was there, it was mostly empty, except for a smattering of SIFF volunteers using the downtime to experience the exhibition themselves. There are a few installations (including a cozy little pillow fort), but for the most part, you sit in the kind of swivel chair you'd see at an office, done your headset and headphones, and, for a few minutes, leave the mall and enter an entirely novel universe, all on your own.
SIFF's VR Zone has 28 stations. Some are interactive: In one, you can compete in a snowball fight; in another, you can record thoughts for future viewers. Others are less interactive but still pretty. There are music videos (including one from local band The Posies); a hot air balloon ride that really, really feels like you're lifting off from earth; and, the best part, a robust collection of documentaries.
This is where VR really excels, at least if the goal is to learn something about the world outside of yourself. The most remarkable documentary I watched (or, perhaps, experienced) was The Sun Ladies, a VR short about Xate Shingali, a famed Iraqi folk singer who now leads a troop of Yazidi women called the Sun Brigade who battle ISIS in Iraq. Produced by Maria Bello and directed by Céline Tricart, The Sun Ladies is vastly more powerful as VR than it would have been flat on a screen. It really feels like you are there, standing with Singali and her comrades as they march, hang out, eat lunch. It's a surreal experience, in some ways: They can't see you, and you know that, but your brain tricks you, for a few moments, into believing that you are actually there. It was all I could do not to reach out and touch the Iraqi sand myself.
The same is true of Space Explorers: A New Dawn. Narrated by Brie Larson and produced by Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios, Space Explorers takes you inside NASA's training camps for astronauts. You go underwater—where astronauts practice working on equipment in an environment that better mimics low gravity outer space—and inside tiny, cramped planes, which is apparently something like being in a space suit. And, of course, you go into space itself. If anything can make you feel insignificant, it's seeing the vast number of stars above you up close. Of course, just because something is beautiful doesn't mean it's correct: Space Explorers may feel like journalism, but it's also a commercial for NASA itself, specifically NASA's mission to Mars. Despite enjoying this film and leaving it with a great admiration for the astronauts themselves, I still think a human mission to Mars is both folly and a waste. The film did not change my opinion about this, but it did make me dizzy and a little nauseous, which, really, is a small price to pay for a short trip to space.
Other standouts include The Other Dakar, a strange, dreamy glimpse into Senegalese mythology, and Queerskins, which places you in the back of a car, eavesdropping on bereaved parents as they drive to their own son's funeral. With a subwoofer discreetly positioned underneath your seat, the subtle vibrations make the illusion of riding along all the more compelling.
I don't know if VR is the future of entertainment. Certainly, there is plenty of passion, money, and innovation in the industry as developers try to break into the mainstream. In some ways, I hope it fails. VR feels dangerous to me, although not as dangerous as the technology that will follow behind: mixed reality, which could allow you to walk through the world as the goggles or glasses on your face impose an entirely false reality onto your brain. Gray skies in Seattle? Toggle around and bam! Now it's sunny. Tired of seeing homeless people sleeping on sidewalks? Bam! Turn them into pikachus and enjoy your walk to work.
Of course, we're a ways off from this future, and it's one that may not ever come to pass. So, for now, before VR ruins real life, SIFF's VR Zone is your chance to see—or experience—the good side of virtual reality for yourself.