At the beginning of 2016, tech enthusiasts and bloggers predicted that it would be the year of virtual reality (VR). And they were right, in the same way that, say, 1895 was the year of film. Movies were hardly ubiquitous in the “Mauve Decade,” but they did exist, at least as novelty concepts in traveling fairs. VR exists today in mostly the same way. While some enthusiasts own early consumer-ready headsets, most of us experience VR, if at all, at pop-up cinemas, galleries, and expos. And while producers are flooding the market with neat VR “experiences” (the preferred term), we don’t yet have a genuine classic — something like Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), which, more than a century later, is still compelling as a movie and not just as a document of film history.
VR has been conceptualized as a film medium, although it’s not totally clear that it is, or what else it might be. Some of the best VR experiences are games, albeit many with a strong narrative component. Maybe the most beloved product in the VR universe is Tilt Brush, an application owned by Google that allows users to paint in virtual space; it’s thrilling, although not particularly cinematic. Still, many VR directors came up through the film industry, and festivals, from Sundance to Cannes, have incorporated VR into their programming. Much of the current writing on VR focuses on its storytelling potential, and since that storytelling frequently involves actors, cameras, and screens, writers often assume that the technology is at least analogous to film.
To experience VR, you need a headset — the big five are the Samsung Gear VR, the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and as of next month, the Google Daydream View — all of which are used in concert with a phone, a computer, or a game console. The devices respond to your movements: Turn your head, and the image shifts in sync, simulating the experience of an immersive, 360-degree screen. (Perhaps the closest analogy to VR is the massive Circle-Vision surround theaters that the Walt Disney Company installed in various theme parks, beginning in the ’50s.) Consumer versions of the major VR headsets all went to market this year — or late last year — but they didn’t become ubiquitous. Most of us still aren’t convinced that they’re worth the price, at least not yet. But 2016 was the year in which VR escaped the silos of the tech industry. Ordinary people are talking about the medium, even making their own works. At last, the over-caffeinated conversation about VR and its revolutionary potential is giving way to sober reflection.
Virtual reality is a paradoxical medium: It draws you in and pushes you out
VR supposedly offers the chance to shut out your world and plunge into another one. That promise is embedded in the word immersive — the adjective most frequently used to describe VR — and it’s implicit in the oxymoronic name of the technology itself: “Virtual reality” implies that, while VR is not, strictly speaking, real, it’s so close that you won’t be able to tell the difference. VR is a paradoxical medium: It draws you in and pushes you out. It empowers you in small ways and then robs you of agency. It is perhaps the most compelling new storytelling medium, to the extent that it is a storytelling medium at all. Over the past three months, I’ve visited VR expos and events to get a handle on what the medium is, and what it could be. I listed in my notebook what I see as the four biggest contradictions of VR.
VR is high-tech | VR is low-res
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced the world’s oldest photograph, View From the Window at Le Gras, in 1826 or ’27, around the same time that Eugène Delacroix finished his classic oil painting The Death of Sardanapalus. The former hangs at the University of Texas at Austin, a monument to technological achievement; the latter hangs in the Louvre, embodying romanticism at its height. Look at them side by side — or rather, look at jpeg reproductions online — and it’s hard to decide which is more compelling. Sardanapalus is all lurid drama and refined technique, an orgy of rippling flesh and bulging muscles. Oil painting was rarely as dynamic as it was in Delacroix’s era. Niépce’s Le Gras, on the other hand, isn’t much: a fuzzy view onto the French countryside captured during a painstaking exposure. But Le Gras marks the grainy arrival of a new medium, one that, in time, would reshape the way we relate to our world and ourselves. That’s what makes it incredible.
To experience early VR in the age of James Cameron and Christopher Nolan is to understand how viewers of Le Gras might have felt at the time of Delacroix. For a medium that is supposedly at the vanguard of digital entertainment, VR looks surprisingly scrappy. Images are fuzzy. Films are between two and 10 minutes long. And many headsets have a flimsy, cut-and-paste quality. The Google Cardboard — literally made from cardboard and used with an iPhone — is an attempt to sell $15 headsets to casual consumers who aren’t likely to pay $600 for an Oculus Rift.
It’s technically possible to produce 3-D photographs with razor-sharp precision, but such files aren’t yet compatible with VR devices. The data overload causes high-definition images to jerk and stall. So VR producers reason — rightly, I think — that fluidity is more important than resolution. You will forgive a low-res image because you’re capable of reading between the pixels; you can imaginatively piece together what you can’t actually see. You won’t forgive images that skip along like scratched CDs. If there’s a perceptible lag between when you shift your head and when the image catches up to you, the effect is uncanny — and nauseating. In an effort to quickly produce a minimum viable prototype (i.e., a product that is still flawed but good enough to sell) makers of content and headsets decided that image compression is inevitable and forgivable.
And so VR is both more and less impressive than traditional media, a historic breakthrough when it comes to immersion but a step back when it comes to image quality and detail. Experiencing early VR is like visiting the Santa Monica Pier or Miami’s South Beach and discovering that the place is somehow breathtaking and tawdry at the same time. It’s hard afterward to separate the exhilaration from the disappointment.
I recently went to Vivid, one of North America’s first VR pop-up cinemas, located in my home city of Toronto. Before playing three narrative experiences, the staff reminded the 20 people in attendance that we could take off our headsets if we felt overwhelmed or scared. They also told us that all three films were initial experiments — imperfect representations of what VR may one day achieve. Fair warning, they were saying. These experiences might blow your mind. Also, they might not.
VR is about taking control | VR is about submission
In VR, you get to make choices. You’re no longer the lonely soul in the darkened theater. You decide what you see. You have agency.
That’s the argument that VR marketers keep reiterating, as they exhort you to “take control,” “take charge,” and “take the reins.” (The latter, in fairness, describes a VR experience about horse racing.) In The Art of Immersion, a 2011 book about the future of digital storytelling, Frank Rose writes that “the concept of audience is growing outdated; participants would be more like it.” With film and TV, you’re more voyeur than subject: You participate mostly in your imagination. VR, in theory, offers the chance to act, and to have your actions influence the story. Imaginative identification becomes engagement. Fantasy becomes agency. But is moving your head really such a powerful way to engage with a story? And if VR is a user-driven medium — oriented toward your agency, control, and comfort — why do the staff at VR expos make you sign indemnity waivers?
Clearly, VR is about vulnerability too. It can induce vertigo, nausea, and terror. Viewer agency, in a VR narrative experience, usually means making a choice from a narrow range of options in a world that is definitely not your own. The instant you put on a VR headset is a bit like the moment on a roller coaster when the lap bar locks into place: You’re now at the mercy of systems larger than you. Granted, a VR user has more agency in backing out than an amusement-park rider. In VR, you decide where to look. The film- or game-makers decide what you see.
Of course, I was free to look anywhere. The experience made me feel many things. Empowerment wasn’t one of them
At a recent VR expo, I experienced Surge, a post-rock music video by Dutch animator Arjan van Meerten. To amp up the intensity, the staff strapped a haptic vest to my torso. My entire body vibrated in sync with the bass line. Of course, I was free to look anywhere: downward, say, at the pockmarked desert terrain that shifted beneath my feet, or upward, at the massive animatronic creatures whose hulking bodies disintegrated above me. The experience made me feel many things. Empowerment wasn’t one of them.
VR’s promise of empowerment isn’t totally false. But it best applies to a specific kind of VR experience: one that is open-ended and manipulated through more than just head movements. Tilt Brush liberates you to paint in three dimensions; you can decorate a limitless gray environment with glitter and color. In Ghostbusters: Dimensions, which premiered at the Madame Tussauds in Times Square, state-of-the-art systems track your body as you walk on a stage: Your movements in physical space determine your virtual experience. (Some critics argue that sophisticated applications like these constitute real VR, whereas everything else is just 360-degree cinema.)
Many VR producers deliberately seek to limit the interactive possibilities, however. The point isn’t to empower viewers but rather to help them empathize with disempowerment. The Guardian’s first VR presentation attempts to simulate solitary confinement from a prisoner’s point of view. And the Perspective series, by California-based company Specular Theory, drops viewers into fraught, violent encounters. In the first installment, you witness a sexual assault from the vantage point of both perpetrator and victim; in the second, you occupy multiple perspectives in a racially charged police shooting.
“When this medium works well, people call it the empathy machine,” says Josh Bloch, a VR producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, whose Highway of Tears is dedicated to indigenous women who have disappeared along British Columbia’s infamous Highway 16. Bloch and his fellow creators wanted to use VR not as a replacement for colder, fact-based news pieces but as a kind of emotional adjunct. Bloch felt that for viewers to understand the narrative, they must get to know the setting. “It’s massive, and the highway is this little ribbon that runs through it,” he says. “When I physically saw that, I began to understand the extent of people’s vulnerability.”
Highway of Tears is a typical 360 experience. Wherever you look, though, you’ll see the same thing: lonely, under-patrolled highway and a vast, indifferent landscape. Instead of reiterating clichés about viewer agency, the best VR creators explore vulnerability, getting close, I think, to what VR — or at least narrative VR — is really about.
VR is cinema for the 21st century | VR is nothing like cinema
When flat-screen filmmakers move into VR, their experiences are often frustrating because the old rules no longer apply. Jump cuts and establishing shots are difficult. “In film, you’re lining up a series of images to tell a story,” says Toronto film-turned-VR-director Elli Raynai. “It’s basically a montage. In VR, you’re actually putting people in a new world, and if you keep transporting them to different parts, it becomes confusing.” Viewers need time to orient themselves in virtual space.
In VR, it’s also difficult, perhaps impossible, to zoom in. The zoom — and its cousin, the close-up — are as important to filmmaking as commas are to writing. Without them, you don’t know where your viewers are looking, or whether they noticed, say, the smoking gun or the tears welling up in the main character’s eyes. “As a filmmaker, my instincts are to show you what I want you to see,” says Raynai, “not for you to choose for yourself.” The interactive component of most narrative VR is pretty limited — you get to turn your head, and that’s it — but for some directors even this small concession to viewer agency is too much. In a Guardian article last May, Steven Spielberg cautioned that VR sets a “dangerous” precedent, since it “gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers, but make their own choices of where to look.” (A month later, in a strange about-face, Spielberg revealed that he is now working on a “family-oriented” VR project.)
Today, VR narratives are often little more than premises, stories that don’t require you to pick up on specific visual cues. Often, such narratives can be summed up in a sentence. A man writes a song in the company of his dog. Two lovers, separated by an ocean, exchange passionate emails and texts. The world’s three remaining northern white rhinos roam the Kenyan grasslands surrounded by armed guards. Bloch says that he approached the Highway of Tears film as a souped-up radio documentary: The audio voice-over told the story, and the visuals intensified it. The piece is successful because it’s simple.
It’s hard to imagine VR telling a narrative as intricate as Chinatown or Vertigo. For that reason, some VR producers believe that the medium is better suited to gaming — also a storytelling form, albeit one that’s more changeable and less dependent on a singular directorial vision. Other people argue that VR, thanks to its intimacy, has incredible potential, if only we can harness it, to tell long-form, cinematic stories. For that, we need perceptual cues to orient viewers’ attention. It’s possible to imagine what these might be. Hear a noise, and you’ll turn toward the source. Spot a moving vehicle, and you’ll follow it.
VR is both a radical new medium and an inadequate version of a pre-existing one. When we come to terms with a medium’s limitations, we can begin to understand its capabilities too
Raynai’s VR debut, I Am You, has a more complex narrative than most. Two lovers switch bodies and see the world through each other’s eyes. The adventure is thrilling at first, but it quickly leads to confusion and anger. To orient viewers, Raynai uses a single GoPro, which moves like a film camera through space. Everything outside the scene is blacked out. Instead of the typical VR experience — a limited series of static 360-degree shots — you get a roving letterbox in a sea of darkness. The piece is more intimate than anything you’d see in a theater: It’s shot from a point-of-view perspective, and the screen, of course, is inches from your eyes. When the female lead reaches out to touch your face, the experience is surprisingly charged. Still, the language of I Am You is basically cinematic. Raynai acknowledges that he took a film convention and transferred it to a headset, losing the panoramic perspective that is a VR hallmark.
That isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps we’ll get VR storytelling right when we learn to switch codes; creators can offer immersive experiences when the story calls for them, and they can use a limited, cinematic field of vision when they need to advance the plot. Television producers are already working on flat-screen shows that include VR supplements. Maybe, instead of replacing the language of film, then, VR must absorb it. VR is both a radical new medium and an inadequate version of a pre-existing one; it challenges narrative conventions and shows us how much we rely on them. When we come to terms with a medium’s limitations, we can begin to understand its capabilities too.
VR is about transcending yourself | VR is about the limits of transcendence
At a recent VR expo, I saw In the Eyes of the Animal, a work by London-based studio Marshmallow Laser Feast. The piece offered a chance to experience the forest from the point of view of a dragonfly. After I put on my headset, I was teleported into a colorful, pixelated landscape, which, I was told, resembled the world through a pair of globular dragonfly eyes.
Did I feel the wind against my membranous wings? Did I feel a rush of weightlessness as my chitinous body descended from the tree tops to the forest floor? Of course not. I felt my sweaty palms and the tension at the back of my skull, where the headset was fastened too tightly.
VR can block out the visual field around you and bombard you with sights, sounds, and sensations. It can’t, however, take you out of your body — the one that gets tired, sore, dislocated, and sick. Whether you’re slaying dragons or swimming with dolphins, there’s one VR sensation you’re more likely to experience than any other: dizziness. If you’re unlucky, it will lead to nausea. Headset and content producers are trying to reduce this side effect, and they’ve come a long way since Oculus Rift released its first development kit in 2014. But for now, at least, motion sickness is a serious VR hazard. To experience early VR, then, is to be reminded that transcending your body is impossible.
Perhaps that too is okay. Johan Knattrup Jensen and Mads Damsbo, two Danish producers, are currently working on a multipart fictional series called Ewa, about a Danish Icelandic woman coming to terms with a secret in her family history. It’s epic in scope, taking viewers from Ewa’s childhood to her young adulthood and perhaps even into old age. Damsbo hopes that over time, viewers will come to see themselves in Ewa. Your human body isn’t too different from hers. And if you’re viewing the world through her eyes, maybe you’ll identify with her desires and vulnerabilities. “We want to tell a story about how she figures out who she is,” says Damsbo, over the phone from Copenhagen. The Ewa pilot screened to acclaim at Cannes last year, and Damsbo hopes to launch the series at pop-up cinemas and perhaps online in early 2017.
Damsbo is influenced by the Dogma movement, an austere ’90s filmmaking trend associated with Danish art directors like Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. I can’t quite picture Dogma in VR, but Damsbo’s pitch is still the most compelling I’ve heard, because it pushes past the VR industry’s fascination with extreme environments and thrills. Maybe, Damsbo suggests, VR makers should stop promising that you can escape your humanity but rather that you can explore it. “Quickly you get tired of the VR clichés. The notion that you want to be on the moon or you want to be a superstar or you want to be Jesus,” says Damsbo. “In the end, we’re all just humans and not anything else.”
Human ingenuity is a stop-and-go process: We reach a new frontier and then fumble to relearn what we already knew. CGI enabled filmmakers to construct vividly realized, alien worlds, but these advances didn’t supplant our age-old need for stories about people: romances, comedies, crime sagas, and coming-of-age tales. Even the most otherworldly sci-fi spectacle — Avatar, say, or Interstellar — derives its appeal from human-level intrigue. That, more than anything, is what we want from storytelling.
Before 2016, VR was, for most of us, a set of abstract ideas — a slew of lavish promises, offered mainly by VR marketers, producers, and enthusiasts. In 2016, many of us finally got a chance to measure those promises against the technology itself, which meant confronting two surprises: first, that VR often isn’t as high-tech, as interactive, or as transcendent as it’s made out to be; second, that those limitations are also strengths. VR may be better for exploring our humanity — and our human vulnerability — than escaping it, but that makes the technology more profound, not less. Many VR producers offer the vague, unrealizable promise of transcendence, but in the long run, the medium may acquaint us with the one “reality” we care about most: our own.