How a Virtual Reality Demo Showed Us the Future of Movies

How a Virtual Reality Demo Showed Us the Future of Movies

Apr 23, 2014


Last year the Tribeca Film Festival launched a Storyscapes section, which was this really cool corner of the fest that featured a group of interactive storytelling experiences. (Here's a gallery of images from the 2013 exhibition, with notes about each project.) These weren't full-length movies, per se, but art installations that all had one thing in common: audience control. Essentially, you were in charge of creating your own experience of a story being presented to you. 

For its 2014 exhibition, Storyscapes continued that same theme, except unlike last year all of their projects felt a lot more connected to one another. After touring them all ahead of its public debut, the biggest takeaway I had was that in a small, pretty magnificent way, I was actually experiencing the future of movies and moviegoing.

Here's a tour through the six different projects on display at the 2014 Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival.



If you're thinking to yourself that a movie called Choose Your Own Documentary must have something to do with those old Choose Your Own Adventure books you read as a kid, you'd be right. This isn't the first time someone's attempted an interactive documentary where you decide where it goes next, but it's definitely the first performance-based one that I've seen, and also the most accessible. 

After Nathan Penlington satisfied a desire to own all 106 Choose Your Own Adventure books, he manages to track down someone selling them on eBay, all in one bundle. After purchasing them, however, Nathan discovers the troubled, emotional diary entries of their previous owner, a 15-year-old boy, dating back to the late 1980s. Having gone through his own difficult childhood, Nathan immediately connected with the boy named Terrence, and even though the stranger on the other end would be in his mid-thirties today, Nathan felt like he had to find him and learn more about the diary entries; to see if Terrence had overcome the insecurities plaguing his past.

In the spirit of the books, Nathan created this unique documentary with over 1,500 different paths to take and multiple endings. The performance part of it factors in as Nathan presents the story live in person, on a stage, tossing it to the audience to vote via tiny remote controls whenever we get to a fork in the story. Whatever choice the audience makes is then shown on the screen within the more traditional documentary that was shot.

The great part about this is it's up to you (or, in this case, the lot of you) to decide which elements of Nathan's journey you want to watch. That said--and Nathan continually warned us about this--the story could end suddenly if the wrong choices are made. It was a fascinating experience that was lovely and frustrating all at the same time, because while you do get certain answers, you don't get all of them. You'll never feel completely full unless you experience the documentary again and make different choices. In an audience setting, however, you're not guaranteed to all make the same choices, all the time. It's like a gamble just to find out a different part of this story you're invested in; a part you know exists.

It's sort of brilliant the way it's constructed, because what you answer says a lot about how you're experiencing the story. At one point, I wanted Nathan to abandon his goal of finding Terrence in order to deliver a love note to a crush he'd been holding for years. The majority of the audience chose differently, and it was like, tough luck -- no love letter scene. But why did I want to ditch the main story in the first place? What does that say about how much I'm investing in character versus story? It was fun challenging myself in different ways, but I did want more control. Afterwards I asked Nathan about wanting that control and he told me they've developed an app that lets viewers at home watch the doc and vote, should Choose Your Own Documentary ever score a TV deal. Nathan would have to film the performance aspect of it and incorporate that into the documentary somehow, but after experiencing this for myself, I want more. 

But I think we're all going to want more. As technology advances and social media continues to evolve, we're entering this age where audiences will demand more control over how they experience a story because they'll be so used to that same control in every other aspect of their lives. 



Facebook just purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion, and a lot of people were like... wha? Oculus who? We've been hearing for years how virtual reality is the future, and that pretty soon we'll all be walking around with giant headsets on, playing inside imaginary worlds that are so immersive you feel like you're somewhere else entirely. 

But what's the real deal? Is Oculus VR the game changer that Facebook thinks it is? Tribeca's Storyscapes featured four separate virtual reality-type exhibits, with two utilizing Oculus VR technology. 



The most cinematic of the Oculus VR set-ups was Rise, which featured the exploration of a still image from a short film that's being developed as a potential feature for Warner Bros. The demo was developed in conjunction with the company Nurulize, who are doing some really cool things in this space, redefining the way we experience film, art, architecture and more through virtual reality/ultra HD real time content.

Here's the description for Rise:

RISE is a fully immersive virtual reality experience that tells the story of a robot uprising from the perspective of a sentient robot agitator who’s been captured. The project explores the confluence of VR and science fiction cinema. Director David Karlak teamed up with Nurulize to create a unique VR experience that captures every minute detail and allows participants to experience a cinematic moment frozen in time.
Once the Oculus headset was on, I was transported inside this abandoned warehouse where the aforementioned robot agitator was being questioned. While the characters didn't move, I could explore the entire space and view the scene from whichever angle I chose. 
As dialogue played out, the camera angle continually shifted, allowing me different vantage points of the characters. It was pretty slick. I was hooked. I liked turning completely away from the characters in order to explore tiny corners behind me just because I could. Because I've never been able to before. Director David Karlak told me the short and subsequent feature will be live action; he says it's like Battle of Algiers with robots. When I asked how long before he thinks we're watching movies with Oculus headsets on, he says five years.
Five years. How far we'll come in five years is anyone's guess (most believe the technology will impact the gaming world first), but what's on display at Storyscapes convinced me that it's coming. This is most definitely the future of movies (it'll be beyond five years before we see technology like this in a conventional movie theater, though), and it's pretty incredible to experience even it does feel rough around the edges.
The other Oculus VR project, Clouds, is this wild 10-hour documentary full of interviews with "artists and hackers" about "creating tools for poetic and socially engaged experiments in art, storytelling and technology," so says it's description. With the headset on, you travel down a virtual tunnel full of questions that float around you. You simply stare at it the question you want to explore more until suddenly you're transported to interviews on that particular topic intertwined with trippy effects.
One effect, which puts you in a maze of hallways that you navigate with slight head movements, was dizzying and disorientating, but imagining it applied to video games gave me chills. The effects are definitely rough and basic--imagine if Oculus had an Atari version-- but I've never felt as immersed in a virtual environment as I did when I had those headsets on.
To answer my question above: yes, Oculus VR is most definitely a game changer. But here's another question: are you ready to have your game changed?



What if you could put on a headset and be instantly transported to the scene of a horrific, real-life crime, where a migrant was beaten to death by border patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border? Using CG technology recreated from actual cell phone footage and Google Maps, Use of Force puts the viewer at the scene of the crime via a virtual headset that allows you to control how you watch the events unfold.

From the official description:

Using custom built virtual reality headsets, participants stand alongside witnesses who were trying to stop the events unfolding, offering a profound and visceral experience. Nonny de la Peña is a pioneer of immersive journalism and this is an experience that really puts you in someone else’s shoes.


Use of Force was the most emotional project on display, revealing a different, more personal virtual reality experience that was uncomfortable and sad, and connected me to a real-life news story in a way that I've never really felt before. 

CIRCA 1948
That connection to different stories and places is what might be the most alluring part of my experience with Storyscapes. In Circa 1948, you wear a headset, pick up an iPad and you're transported back to two locations in Vancouver, BC, circa 1948, which were painstakingly recreated to put you back inside them decades later. The sounds, the voices, the ability to explore at your own pace -- experiencing something like this made me feel like we're not that far away from time travel, or the closest thing to it, with an experience that is fully immersive and controlled by you. 
How cool would it be to travel back to 1920s New York City and walk around the streets, listening to the sounds of an era long gone? Or what about the town you grew up on, back when you were a kid? Eventually I could see this sort of thing built into Google Maps with you navigating using a virtual reality headset. 
What all of these projects have in common is they draw out our desire to connect, and to control that connection. It's something we're doing more and more in our everyday lives as we approve friends on Facebook or find new people to follow on Twitter. We scroll through images of other lives on Instagram with the hopes of feeling more connected to the world around us. 
It was fitting, then, that my journey through Storyscapes ended with On a Human Scale, where I connected with a bunch of New Yorkers I didn't know through an interactive project that "reimagines the people of New York City as a fully playable and immersive video instrument controlled by a piano."
Each stranger was asked to sing a different note, and as I sat down at this piano and began to literally play the citizens of New York City, I felt this personal connection to them and to the small pieces of their personalities that pour out of their individual notes. I didn't know any of these people and they didn't know each other, but for a brief moment--as I tried to recall whatever little piece of piano music I learned as a kid--all of us were joined together, creating something beautiful.
If these six projects offer up even the tiniest glimpse of what the future of entertainment holds, then I'm incredibly hopeful. I'm hopeful that this age of connectivity will eventually lead to a strong desire within all of us to explore the deepest parts of ourselves in ways we've never been able to before. Whether it's through creation or immersion, being given the tools to experience stories, characters, relationships, and environments in any way we see fit is an incredibly powerful concept that I haven't even wrapped my head around yet. 
Eventually it'll all be here, though. And from what little I've seen, I think it's going to be pretty awesome.

Categories: Features, Geek, Film Festivals
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