Well, that was unexpected.
With my VR headset on, I left the safe confines of the Tribeca Film Festival, and walked through a door that led me into Jack: Part One (created by Mathias Chelebourg). On the other side, I found myself standing in the dilapidate remains of a treehouse-like structure. In the corner: a ratty mattress. When I moved my hand over red burners of a stove top, the heat was real. In front of me was a frog-like creature who identified herself as my mother.
Wait a second, is that a real person?
My frog-mom grew impatient when I didn’t respond right away. She then tried to hand me a broom. I reached out and grabbed it and the object was present. It was real. And with it, the reality of this virtual reality situation revealed itself: This was no mere simulation nor on-rails VR experience, but a world populated with human actors and real objects. Our conversations were real, as was virtually every object in the room.
I’ve done a lot of VR. Some good, some not-so-good, but nothing quite like this. Even the intricate experiences created by The Void—which are noteworthy for their use of physical objects and spaces that are mapped to the VR experience—don’t feature the level of agency, improv, and humanity that can only come from interacting with a live actor.
Holy cow, this is fun.
And so we enter the next phase of mind-destroying virtual reality experiences, as highlighted by a few marquee displays at the Tribeca Film Festival's Virtual Arcade. As a form of mass media, VR hasn’t quite caught on as fast as its boosters had hoped. But in some ways, this has actually been good for VR as an art form. Freed from the expectation that all VR experiences need to be designed to be experienced by anybody with a smartphone or an Oculus Rift, some creators have moved on to creating location-specific experiences that are, by their very nature, impossible to replicate at home.
This is VR as a destination: An experience more akin to attending a play than streaming a show on Netflix. And because such performances can only be experienced by a few people (these experiences can only hold one or two people at a time), they instantly earn an air of exclusivity and at least a little bit of mystique.
Of course, these techniques aren’t just about creating fun. The Tribeca Film Festival also featured perhaps the most emotionally intense VR experience I've ever encountered. Hero (created by Navid Khonsari, Vassiliki Khonsari, and Brooks Brown), placed me in the shoes of a Syrian villager in the moments leading up to a devastating airstrike. After the bombs fell, I was forced navigate the ruins of a building (with walls and artifacts really there for me to feel), before encountering a child trapped under slabs of cement. Reaching into a fiery hole, I found an arm.
It felt real because it was real. A human actor, arm stretched out, waiting to reciprocate my comforting grip while thanking me for my help.
It is still impossible for a machine to accurately replicate the experience of touching skin, or the subtle muscle movements of a held hand. The effect of finding a person there—and interacting with their touch—was intense, haunting, and one of the first times I’d felt VR actually lived up to its long-touted promise of being an “empathy engine,” uniquely capable of making users identify with others’ experiences.
VR may not yet be a popular form of mass entertainment, but if the projects on display at Tribeca are any indication, it might be the next great form of site-specific performance art. And that's exciting.