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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | The stereotype of Virtual Reality (VR) is an isolated person sitting alone in a room, their head sealed within a helmet, master of a lonesome utopia. Early efforts at VR often met this cliché — but the “Tribeca Immersive” programming at the Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) aims to make virtual reality a more tangible and social experience. Tribeca Immersive includes a Virtual Arcade of VR experiences (Apr. 20-28), along with a festival of films shot in 360 degrees. Both are running at the same time at TFF this month (Apr. 18-29), and will give even hardcore VR users an excuse to leave home and experience these site-specific installations at the festival’s headquarters.
Almost any smartphone can be converted to a VR rig, but the top-end hardware continues to grow more elaborate. In the last two years, Tribeca Immersive had experiences that used motion-sensing controllers, and digital cameras that recorded the user’s movements around a room. This year, the event goes even further, with VRs that stimulate the senses using scent, heat, and elaborate physical set pieces.
Loren Hammonds, Senior Programmer of Film and Immersive at TFF, pointed out that at the Virtual Arcade, “We like to offer audiences a sense of immersion before they put on the headset. So we give all the artists the opportunity to craft their own spaces to speak to the experience you’re about to have before you put on the headset.”
A prominent project is “Hero,” which unfetters the user by putting all of the VR equipment in a backpack, and allows users to move around freely in a simulated Syrian neighborhood. We spoke to the co-creator of the project, Navid Khonsari, who said that “Hero” will “push VR to be as immersive as possible, but also to be a project that has real impact to show people what it’s like in another part of the world.”
Another VR experience that addresses social themes while still pushing the use of technology is “The Day the World Changed,” which takes place in a recreation of Hiroshima. Gabo Arora, co-creator of the project, said it is a “social interactive Virtual Reality documentary” which addresses nuclear weapons and allows users to experience life in Hiroshima the day of the atomic bombing at the end of World War II. Rather than being a passive, lonely experience, Arora pointed out that this is a rare example of a VR experience for multiple simultaneous users. “You’re doing this with three other people, so the whole concept of going through a documentary inside the documentary with other people who are also avatars gives it a whole new relationship of what a shared experience with history can be.”
New Yorkers can also get a look at their hometown with several projects set in New York. “Fire Escape” puts users on a simulated fire escape in Crown Heights, but the installation at Tribeca will use a real fire escape so that it will feel authentic even when users are inside the helmet.
New York’s theater community helped inspire “objects in mirror AR closer than they appear.” It’s based on a show at the New York Theatre Workshop, and uses many aesthetic elements of the theatrical set. It also has “Augmented Reality” features that superimpose digital objects over the real set. Graham Sack, one of the creators of the piece, noted that many VR festivals “have a binary nature. You’re either in the headset or not in it… We wanted to create something that was the exact opposite of that.” The experience, Sack noted, “has this open floor plan, so many people can interact with this at once, both with headsets and without the headsets.”
“BattleScar” is set in the 1970s, so modern people can walk the streets of the Lower East Side as it was 40 years ago. It is about an immigrant exploring the punk scene when this was a new subculture. Because of the interactive nature, users can experience this from a more personal point of view. Fred Volhuer, CEO of Atlas V, the company behind “BattleScar,” explained to us, “From a creative perspective VR allows [users] to identify more with the character, and put the user in a position they could never be in with a flat screen.”
Another perspective that people rarely get is a close-up view of sharks. “Into the Now” is a documentary of ocean wildlife, but director Michael Muller was quick to point out that it’s much more than just sharks. It’s his way of encouraging people to learn about the ocean and the environmental problems facing it. In his words, “People only protect what they love.”
Penrose Studios has made some of the longest VR experiences at previous Tribeca Immersive events, and this year they return with “Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall,” which has a running time of a whopping 30 minutes. Eugene Chung of Penrose said of it, “When making narrative VR experience it is crucial never to forget that you are creating for the viewers. We are always thinking about the consumer experience here at Penrose, and with a 30-minute experience, we are currently pushing the limits and the boundaries of VR stories.”
Among these lofty projects are some outright silly uses of VR, too. People who come to the Virtual Arcade will find the farcical “Vacation Simulator,” by Owlchemy Labs. Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs is well aware that their comical games are oddballs at Tribeca. “It doesn’t fit in with the other content, and that’s by design,” he said. “At Owlchemy, we’ve always sprinted in the opposite direction of the expected… We’re using this limitless, incredible technology to simulate a satirical vacation with a bunch of floating robots.”
More traditional games are also being honored for their narrative and design at TFF this year. The Tribeca Games line of programming is giving an early look at the upcoming “Shadow of the Tomb Raider,” as well as a talk with the creators of recently released “God of War.” Both franchises have recently been rebooted with exceptional results.
Many of these projects, like “Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall” and “The Day the World Changed,” are premiering at Tribeca Immersive. Others use new hardware and tech that’s debuting at the festival, too. It promises an experience that people won’t get at home just putting their smartphone into a Google Cardboard VR headset.