I continue to be actively engaged in VR, and am excited about 2016, which will be VR’s biggest year ever. But most of my focus has been on games. Facebook has made clear they believe that VR movies will be the facet of VR that will be truly mass market, since the market for immersive games is limited. I had been somewhat skeptical about VR as a film medium, until I watched a short VR film my students created, which really used the medium well, and was very moving, though it had its rough spots. I happened to be in Portland for the premiere presentation of the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival (if you want to see if it is coming to your town, check here), so I thought I’d check it out. They had about twenty VR “films” to show, about half of which were video, half were animation. Most of which were linear experiences, though a few had minor interactive elements. Portland is the first stop for the festival, but the plan is to visit ten cities. Regular tickets were about $25, but VIP tickets that let you skip the lines (and there were lines) were a bit north of $100. As a busy VR professional, who really wanted to see as much as possible, I decided to spring for the VIP pass.
My hope was that I would see a new medium springing forth, that would be as interesting and powerful as the VR gaming world is starting to be. Unfortunately, I didn’t really see that. Instead, most of what I saw were early, often bungling experiments with trying to make VR films. Few VR filmmakers seem to comprehend the power of presence, and fewer understand how not to break it. Annoyingly, even the organizers of the festival don’t get it! They pumped techno music into the festival space the entire time, which bled through the headphones into every experience, completely trashing any sense of place that a filmmaker might be trying to create. Hopefully enough people will complain about this that on the rest of the tour the festival organizers will take the hint that audio landscape is how the mind establishes where it is.
Most filmmakers are so used to creating content for a rectangular screen that dealing with an explorable immersive medium is alien to them. Nepal Quake, despite its noble mission, was full of jarring jump cuts and weird seams. The Archer tried to create a “silent movie” feel, but then absolutely failed to guide the eye of the viewer to the subtitles in any useful way. Red Balloon Movie was a watery take on Uplift, making a weak excuse to show some VR drone footage that felt fairly meaningless, and also had a lot of cuts. Some other films were really just immersion pieces, letting you sit quietly and look at something not particularly interesting. Some pieces such as Tana Pura, LoVR, and Bright Shadows were abstract music videos, which were relatively engaging by being pretty, but weak on storytelling. Colosse did a good job at being pretty, and at leading the eye, but the pacing was often a bit slow. Butts was amusing, and used an interesting 3D iris effect to guide the viewer’s eye at the end. The Night Café was an attempt to make an explorable Van Gogh painting, which aesthetically was very successful, though the navigation was slightly awkward, and it had no story or interest curve. There was definitely a problem with indirect control, as the usher had to tell everyone “There’s nothing in the basement. Everyone wants to go down there, but there’s nothing.” It was a wonderful beginning to what could be a very meaningful experience, but though the models are artfully constructed, there’s no meaning there yet. The standout of the show for me was DMZ: Memories of a No Man's Land, which takes about ten minutes and is an interactive exploration of the complexities of the Korean border. It was not only elegant and beautiful, but had a surprisingly thought provoking message, and a very clever method of allowing the guest to explore and gradually unlock content in a way that allows free exploration, but also lets a structured story be told. I definitely learned things from DMZ that I can use.
Sorry to be down on this stuff, but the medium is really important to me. I came to the festival hoping to get an update about the wonderful progress that VR filmmakers are surely making. Mostly, I’m not seeing that. This experience has strengthened my belief that gaming will be the killer app for virtual reality. While I’m sure there will be a few excellent VR films created, they will be exceptions, not the rule, and I believe there will be far more passion for game-like experiences in VR than there will be for film-like experiences.