The robust menu of virtual reality installations offered at this month's Dubai International Film Festival — the first time the format was featured here — would’ve made it the world's largest, most celebrated VR-palooza of record just a couple of short years ago.
That distinction now lies somewhere between the expansive springtime VRLA Expo in Los Angeles and next month's Sundance Film Festival, where a dozen installations seemed like a huge deal in 2015 (this year well over 30 are coming to Park City, Utah).
But the healthy offering of virtual reality experiences and stories at the 13th annual Dubai festival — including 10 VR "movies," five being world premieres from a global roster of filmmakers — proves that the format has become an essential component of the global film festival circuit.
If you want to be a player, you gotta have VR, and you gotta go big.
The festival's showcase section, dubbed "A DIFFerent Reality," featured a sprawling open-air Samsung VR "cinema" with a dozen or more headset-equipped seats at the Madinat Jumeriah resort festival headquarters.
Titles included new non-fiction VR works like When All Land Is Lost?, Indian director Faiza Ahmad Khan's opening documentary (image above) about injustice in India’s polluted coal-mining district; or Canadian director Adam Cosco's surreal drama Knives, about a spiraling housewife's encounter with a door-to-door knife salesman.
Inside the adjacent film market showroom floor, another dozen or so VR-related installations attracted curious festivalgoers. And the most popular were clearly of the experiential variety, like riding Six Flags’ Tatsu rollercoaster (below), an installation that required sophisticated moving chairs to achieve the full effect.
People were getting a kick out of it, as the constant yelps and screams that filled the space over the past two weeks would attest. But it's not exactly the kind of entertainment tech that’s going to wind up in the home anytime soon.
And that's ... kind of the problem that VR is still grappling with: How to tell stories with it?
The reality of virtual narratives: They're still learning
While gaming has gained a foothold and sophisticated amusement park ride-like installations are good fun, narrative storytelling in VR is still struggling to figure out its language and its place in the entertainment landscape.
"We’re still looking for creative narrative virtual reality," Shaoyu Su, an arts laboratory specialist from USC's Jaunt Cinematic VR lab told Mashable at the DIFF booth he was manning. "I went to VRLA twice and everyone is talking about camera solutions and new tech. ... But I don’t really see a rise in content creation [ideas]. That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out in the lab."
The USC lab’s demos at DIFF were nifty in execution, but nothing yet feels like a compelling blend of story and medium. The three that Mashable strapped in for included a moment among a dancer and musicians twirling around the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, a somewhat crudely CG-rendered ride-along on the Wright Bros. plane (cool!) and a simulation of a first date, in which you’re the potential suitor’s wingman, guiding him by turns.
So far, it seems like everyone’s still learning the language of the platform and cranking out neato demonstrations that don’t go much beyond proof-of-concept. "Really, all the tools are already spreading around for VR," Su said. "We’ve been doing really well in traditional film narrative storytelling for about 100 years. The questions is, how [do] you translate that?"
No one’s completely cracked the storytelling part yet, though many have tried. Some admirably.
Mashable has demo’ed some promising outliers over the past year, like the well-directed bunnies-vs.-aliens short film Invasion (above), the Pixar-like Sundance VR debutante Alumette and Jon Favreau’s Trolls and Goblins with Wevr Studios, an enchanted-forest experience that's the most compelling case for VR's narrative future we've yet seen.
Each uses different visual language and ways of directing the viewers' eyes to points of distinction. These are the threads of a virtual cinematic language that may someday be woven into a whole-cloth approach.
"We’re in this stage now where no one really knows what it’s doing"
"When radio came along, and television, and the internet, no one really knew or could predict how they were going to affect every aspect of society," Ben Outram, creator of Sound World, an interactive psychedelic world of geodesic shapes and music (see image, top of post), toldMashable. "I think VR is one of those — we’re in this stage now where no one really knows what it’s doing. But it represents a whole new level of an ability to communicate, an ability to empathize, there’s more information being sent, there’s more levels and channels of sensory perception and we can expect a whole multitude of ways that I think is going to change society just as much as the internet has."
Over time, that may be true. Come mid-January, we'll get a first look at a whole new batch of VR "movies," when the highly curated New Frontier section at the Sundance Film Festival — now entering its second decade — brings 20 VR experiences and 11 installations to three venues in Park City. It's become the VR film festival of record over the past few years, the place where all the latest 360-degree creations come to show off.
This year they'll include Particle, the story of a two-dimensional light being who exists in the pages of a giant, hand-drawn comic book; a kinetic dance performance inside an extravagant silent movie palace; an "elaboration" upon Vincent Van Gogh’s Provence landscapes; and Asteroids!, Baobab Studios' (Invasion!) cosmic journey aboard the spaceship of aliens Mac and Cheez.
"In an era that has recalibrated economies, redefined social realms and rewired the connection between the individual and the world, we must also reimagine what it is to be human," Shari Frilot, Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer and Chief Curator of New Frontier said. "Through virtual reality, augmented reality and various crafted immersive experiences, New Frontier this year challenges the very nature of perception and what we consider to be 'reality.'"
Even if that reality is that the storytelling just isn't there yet.