My mistake, perhaps, was emphasizing in my head the word “Film” when I went to the Kaleidoscope 2015 Virtual Reality Film Fest Wednesday night.
Held downtown at the spacious Brazos Hall, the touring show was billed as a showcase of “The best in virtual reality (VR) filmmaking and the top artists working in this cutting edge field,” according to an email from the organizers. It hit nine cities, including Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, before making a last stop in Austin.
What it really was, though, was a chance for people who haven’t been exposed to a lot of the current generation of virtual reality to get a taste of what’s possible via a selection of shorts in genres including Documentary, Animation, Live-Action and Real-Time Experience.
About 30 Samsung Gear VR headsets, equipped with snapped-on Samsung smart phones and a separate pair of headphones, were the vehicle for these virtual-reality flights. Three Oculus Rift units, one of which was having technical problems that night, were also available for specific demos not available on the Gear VR sets.
On one side of the large room, two long rows of white swivel chairs were set up and this was where most of the attendees, either general audiences who were let in at 8 p.m. or VIP attendees who were able to get in an hour earlier, took turns selecting from about 20 films. (Kaleidoscope provided me with a press VIP pass to attend early.)
After nearly all of these, the volunteers helping put on/off the headsets and selecting the film choices would ask, “How was it?” or “What did you think?”
Almost always, I answered chirpily, “Neat!”
And they were neat. The first one I experienced, “Tana Pura,” was a 360-degree, moody fireworks show, streaming colors dancing in front of my eyes in front of a starry background. It was lovely, for three whole minutes, then it was over.
I experienced “Der Gross Gottlieb,” an Oculus Rift experience featuring simulated wind as you sit atop a set of books stacked so high they reach outer space. It was lovely and immersive, with great detail, but after you’d looked around and experienced the sensation for a minute or two, there was nothing to do but get off the chair and hand the headset to someone else.
“The Night Café” was more interesting, a detailed recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s visual style as a 3-D environment you could walk through. The face of a pool player, turning toward me as I just stood, sans body, in virtual nothingness, was startling. Then I went down a set of stairs to a dark room and lost my way, finally retreating back upstairs. I found out only later that if I’d kept going in the dark, I would have met van Gogh himself. There was nothing in the sim to give me that impression and I was sad to have missed that.
I began to worry that I might be missing something else: why I wasn’t having a better time or feeling moved and delighted. Was there supposed to be a narrative to these films, or were they all basically technology demos showing the potential of VR without actually engaging as stories or anything more than sensory experiences? That might be fine. A “Game of Thrones” VR experience at 2014’s SXSW Interactive is one I still rave about. But I wasn’t seeing anything of that scale or intensity.
I got even more worried when I explored some of the sponsored 360-degree videos that were much less interactive, such as one featuring a busty meditation instructor sitting on a boulder on a beach in front of you, or a slice-of-life Grand Canyon Native American dance scene. They were nice to look at (tilt your head around, see the wide vistas or beach waves), but nothing you could touch or explore or do much beyond sit and watch.
By this time, the lines for all the main VR film experiences was getting so long that I wasn’t able to see much else. With only a limited number of Gear VR sets and lots of curious people, it began to happen that you’d wait 10 or 15 minutes to experience a two- or three-minute VR film. And none of the ones I saw seemed to rise above “Neat” or feel like more than a brief amusement ride. I came in hoping for a 20-course meal and was beginning to feel like I was just gorging on carnival candy.
“The Archer,” a live-action silent-film style amusement, came and went before I really knew what I was seeing and, perhaps because I was watching it on a smart phone screen, it paused and skipped at a crucial moment. But then it was over and it was time to stand in another 15-minute line.
In those lines, I had plenty of time to observe the things that chill me to the idea of VR, even as my geek side wants it to develop into a viable, mainstream technology. Seeing people sitting in chairs, bobbing their heads around, completely vulnerable and oblivious the the real world around them (and, really, what is real?) bummed me out. So did hunting and hunting for a magical, transportive experience and only finding, and only finding little flashes of inspiration, such as the moment when you feel the thumping boom of digital giants among you in the brief, memorable “The Last Mountain.” It was an Oculus-based film with a vest attachment you wore, amplifying the booms right to your torso. But this thrill was short-lived and moments later I was back in line, staring at people in chairs as they went virtual, their bodies mostly left behind.
It reminded me of when I read Ernie Cline’s celebrated novel (soon to be a Stephen Spielberg film) “Ready Player One” and Adam Sternbergh’s hard-boiled future noir “Shovel Ready.” In both, the world of always-plugged-in people living their lives in virtual space while their bodies fall apart in our real world deeply depresses me.
I know that’s not what these VR filmmakers were going for, but I couldn’t help thinking that the storytelling chops I was craving, the kind of thing I could see if I went to the Alamo Drafthouse for a showing of “The Martian” weren’t here. Were these “Films” or experiences and does the distinction matter when it comes to VR? Would a filmmaker like Ridley Scott do something more interesting with VR or are these pioneers of a new medium just finding their footing and learning to explore? For an audience member, is it enough to have your senses fooled into taking a journey they’ve never taken before?
Kaleidoscope VR founder and Austin native René Pinnell all but acknowledged that gap in remarks to the audience during the fest. “The operative word here is ‘Potential,’ ” he said of the medium. “It’s gonna take a lot of hard work to learn from (these films). And then go and do better.”
To that end, he announced the formation of a meetup group here, as they’ve been formed in each of the tour cities, to support budding virtual-reality filmmakers.
I’m still curious about VR filmmaking, even if the films on this particular night didn’t completely sell me on the concept or show me ways that they’re an improvement on non-VR films. And as we move toward these more full-bodied virtual experiences, I wonder if we’ll have a split in audiences as we currently do for 3-D cinema: those completely sold on it, and those who avoid it and say it just gives them headaches and adds nothing to their movie-going.
As I headed home that night, I saw a possibly drunk couple walking outside Brazos Hall. The array of headset-wearing people inside the building caught their eye through the large windows and the woman pointed and laughed at the people inside. The couple stayed for a few moments, perhaps wondering what they were witnessing, then shrugged it off and walked together, holding hands and giggling, while the people inside sat in swivel chairs, craning their heads around to see worlds that weren’t really there.
I couldn’t tell who was having a better time.