Review of Virtual Reality Film Festival

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Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival Portland, Oregon 22 August 2015.

Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival Portland, Oregon 22 August 2015.

Yesterday I attended the one-day Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival [KVRFF], which kicked off its 10-stop North American tour in Portland, Oregon. It presented 20 featured “films” or experiences, plus some business applications such as “social VR”–which entailed meeting in a virtual room with a guy in Redwood City–and branded experiences by Nike and Chrysler. I played the Nike experience, which put me on a professional soccer field, guys coming at me with powerful kicks, the players speaking rapid Spanish or Italian and the fuzz of the stadium noise all around me. It was exciting. A little glitch when I was adjusting the volume popped a menu screen onto my gameplay that wouldn’t go away. It broke the illusion. Such things happen. But the volunteers were generally great about getting everybody oriented and seeing stuff. I viewed most works through Samsung goggles, which allow a phone to slide into the headset and run the experience off of that. The Oculus is more technologically responsive because it uses a camera and a computer to track one’s physical movements and adjusts the illusion based on those movements.

About 200 or 250 people, racially mixed and mostly in their twenties, tested out new experiences and talked as we waited in the longish lines.

VR is made by stitching together 360-degree film frames, so it makes sense to call this a “film festival” at a technical level. But it’s also a PR gesture too. Réné, the Director of the KVRFF, said in his opening remarks that cinema was the dominant entertainment platform of the 20th century, and predicted VR will be the the signal entertainment platform of the 21st. Calling KVRFF a “film festival” legitimizes VR as the next big thing. Palmer Luckey, inventor of the Oculus Rift system being featured on the cover of Time Magazine attests to the mainstream media’s belief in VR’s potential for broad appeal. Facebook is betting on this. It bought Oculus for gigantic wads of cash (2 billion dollars, was it?) and aims to roll out Oculus to consumers in time for the 2015 Xmas buying frenzy. Whether that deadline is even a little bit reasonable remains to be seen. Even if the devices are market ready (a big “if”), what kinds of story and empathy experiences will get people to stay in virtual reality? That’s what the rest of my post is about.

Almost all of the experiences at KVRFF were less than ten minutes, most in the 2-3 minute range. In several of the works, I needed a minute or so to grok the entire experience. I had hopes that the “Documentary” group might be different because the works would aim to build an argument. The one I viewed (“Welcome to Aleppo” about the Syrian Civil War, 2:45 minutes) was a fairly predictable testimony about a city destroyed by war, with images of its former vibrancy interspersed onto 360-degree images of a street of chaotic rubble. “Being there” in the Samsung goggles didn’t really deepen my feelings about the despondency caused by that war. My hopes for narrative and empathy — for the unique build that VR might offer — wasn’t answered by this experience.

By contrast, the four experiences put together by Condition 1 moved me, probably because they were less ambitious and could deliver on the premise which was simply: be here now, look at this. I watched a SW Native American woman weave and hum to herself in what I take to be a traditional room; a blonde American looking directly into the camera to guide meditation on the beach (I looked away from her and checked out the waves instead, which were mesmerizing); three SW Native American women and one little girl, all in native dress, dancing on a plateau high up in red rocks. I spun my head and saw the three Native men in ordinary street clothes who were banging the drum and chanting the music to which they danced. That was rewarding, the contrast in their dress, and the fact that I got something “extra” for moving my gaze away from the “main event.” Finally, I watched a white cowboy, also in the SW, lead three horses along a trail. It was just a tiny moment in time, but it was satisfying to be there, watching the small dot become the man and horses, watching them pass away outside my sight.

Brad Berens, above, views an experience. He’s @bradberens on Twitter.

The best “cool toy” experience was Tana Pura, an experimental film by Mike Tucker with music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. It was fantastic, a synaesthete’s fantasia of spare piano/violin music moving through a light show animated like schools of fish. It was great, really hard for me not to dance. I probably stuck my arms in the air.

There was one really great moment when the VR demonstrated a story capacity that winked out beyond the “what a cool toy!” feeling. Tyler Hurd, a longtime game developer, made a silly piece called “Butts.” He showed the 2D version of it during a brief artist’s talk, and it left me neutral. But in VR, there was one moment where I burst out laughing: the VR surprised me (even though I knew what was coming!) and delivered something the 2D couldn’t. When the animated men fly into the air propelled by the confetti coming out of their butts, and it rains down upon the viewer: it was magical. I felt connected to the characters. Their joy spread to me. All the other elements (vibrant colors, facial expressions, cartoon classical music soundtrack, Gershwin-inspired soaring) felt earned and appropriate.

If storytellers can use the VR to impart feelings that can’t be delivered otherwise in our crowded mediascape, then people will be incentivized to buy the devices and hang out in these experiences. There are only so many times the thrill of a roller coaster or the excitement of world exploration will keep people coming back.

Books and electronic literature moreso than film might be the tech analog for VR artists to check out. In books and e-lit, we wander. Those freeform imaginative experiences could aid artists who come from a film background and think primary through the camera’s gaze. In Butts, Hurd did a good job of triggering the gaze where he wanted people to look, but I took real pleasure in peering around the animated men’s bodies to get a different angle, to subvert what I was being told to look at. Hurd’s background as a game dev seems apt here.

There was no beginning/middle/end to several of the experiences. This was true of Bright Shadows (which didn’t move me), The Night Cafe and Der Grosse Gottlieb. The Night Cafe was a mashup of Van Gogh paintings one could wander. “But don’t go into the basement,” the KVRFF volunteer told me. “I mean, you could go there. Everybody wants to go there. But there’s nothing in the basement.” I spent my time in a bathroom just outside of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles trying to open a locked blue door. I was stuck on the door frame of the adjacent green room, and I couldn’t quite back out of it enough to use my gaze to trigger the blue door. This was the only experience in the entire KVRFF where I experienced nausea. For the most part, the Oculus and Samsung goggles systems were very responsive and not laggy. Nausea is caused by a mismatch between input from your inner ear (physical balance) and your eyes. Later, in line for a different experience, I met a guy who’d also got stuck in the bathroom. The blue door had tantalized us.

Der Grosse Gottlieb solved the “where are you” problem inventively. In the experience, you’re perched atop a gigantic ladder of chairs in what looks like the Alps. You’re higher than the other mountains in the distance, and snowy wind and clouds blow by you. Peer down, and a chair from the ladder dislodges and falls into the abyss. To your right, a Vitrola plays opera music, a half-drunk glass of wine awaits you, an unlit match teeters in the wind atop a box of matches. Handwritten letters written on fine paper, most of them sealed with a red wax stamp, blow down into the abyss. The trick of implacement? A steel fan blows cool air on the back of your neck when you’re in the experience. The wind all around you is felt by your skin and moves small hairs on your neck and arms. Because the viewer was not meant to go anywhere in the piece, there was no mismatch between where I was perched and where I wanted to go. It was lovely: a mood, an atmosphere. No story but what you projected onto it.

I left the KVRFF exhausted. I’d been looking at works and chatting with people in line for three hours. Though it was still open for one more hour (til 8PM) the room had cleared out by 2/3, I’d estimate. It was cognitively demanding. And exciting. As I said to some friends on Facebook, I felt when viewing my first experience of the day (Condition 1) that I was experiencing a threshold moment in a new medium, like the people sitting in the darkened movie theater 100 years ago, screaming as the train in the tunnel thundered toward them.

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