On a sunny day in Venice, California I find myself in the Vrse.works offices with Samsung Gear, a virtual reality headset, strapped to my head and noise-cancelling headphones on. Within minutes I’m in Liberia listening to Decontee Davis, an Ebola survivor, offer up a prayer for her country. As the narrator of this virtual reality film, Waves of Grace, made by Vrse.works in partnership with the UN and Vice Media, Decontee takes me to different parts of her village where I can see the aftermath and slow reconstruction of a society that’s been devastated by the worst Ebola epidemic in history.
Standing in the middle of a Liberian market busy again with vendors and locals buying food, I twist my head around to see a woman looking right at me. Sitting in the middle of a school classroom, I watch the teacher lead a lesson and see excited and curious students all around me, finally able to go to school again. At an orphanage, I meet some of the estimated 30,000 children who have lost their parents to the disease. At a hospital I watch Decontee comfort a child infected with Ebola but she doesn’t wear protective gear like the nurse behind me; now that she’s survived it, she’s immune to it. In every location, I make eye contact with locals, I can almost feel the heat and the bugs and the dusty streets under my feet. Suddenly Ebola isn’t just a horrible thing that happened thousands of miles away from me. It’s effecting people right in front of me, people who are looking back at me.
“VR means experiencing stories right here, not watching something over there,” Vrse co-founder and technologist Aaron Koblin explains. “You can be dropped right into the action. You forget that you're not actually in the place. You start activating parts of your brain pertaining to space and safety, and this creates a different sense of vulnerability. With this feeling of presence comes a heightened feeling of connection and empathy, and a different connection to memory.”
Experiencing a film in virtual reality, especially with a headset that exactly tracks your movements, there is an uncanny feeling that your brain is experiencing something totally and utterly new. Koblin calls it “hacking your senses” and it’s a phenomenal thing; I know that I’m in California with the Vrse.works team but I feel like I’m in Liberia with an Ebola survivor. I finally get all the “game-changing” headlines tech sites have been running about VR for months now, except that game-changing isn’t exactly the right sentiment: virtual reality is a whole new frontier.
VR means experiencing stories right here, not watching something over there. You can be dropped right into the action. You forget that you're not actually in the place. You start activating parts of your brain pertaining to space and safety, and this creates a different sense of vulnerability.
Chris Milk, co-founder and creator of Vrse, doesn’t see VR as a threat to any existing form of entertainment, but rather an entirely new medium and one that could actually encourage creativity across the board. “While there are bridges between the two mediums [cinema and VR], I don’t believe that one overtakes the other, or replaces the other for that matter,” he says. “If anything, VR coming to fruition as a new mainstream medium will encourage filmmaking to get more creative. With the birth of photography, we saw new forms of painting come to light. Impressionism. Cubism. Abstraction—all new interpretations of an existing medium thanks to emergence of a new format, a new set of tools, and a new set of devices. We’re at that same moment with VR and cinema, and I’m excited to see where all these new opportunities take us 20 years from now.”
Narrative storytelling is still a big ambition for VR studios like Vrse, who announced last year they’ve partnered with Hollywood super-producer Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures brought us Her. Together they’ve formed Vrse.farm, a division that works with traditional filmmakers who want to develop stories for virtual reality.
VR coming to fruition as a new mainstream medium will encourage filmmaking to get more creative.
Montreal-based VR studio Felix & Paul Studios have hired New Regency’s senior development and production executive, Ryan Horrington (12 Years a Slave, Assassin’s Creed) to be their chief content officer. Sure, currently the strength of VR lies in the experience: dropping into a place you wouldn’t otherwise get to visit, doing something you couldn’t otherwise do like fly or stand in the middle of a lake while a train barrels towards you. But the future of VR is much wider and deeper. Storytelling is undoubtedly going to change, from documentary to narrative, it’s just that no one can predict exactly how.
“I think fictional virtual reality is inherently more difficult than documentary virtual reality,” Paul Raphael, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios, says. “We're making a lot of progress in that direction, but even if you imagine a scene in virtual reality that is completely fictional where you are in a room with other characters, you are always going to be a part of the equation.”
Being present with the characters in a story that, in regular cinema you’d only be able to watch from a distance, creates a sense of connection to the characters and storyline that is unprecedented. In a traditional movie, slow quiet moments tend to be edited out, but in virtual reality these points really shine. “The moments of calm between story beats, which are edited out of most films, are now chances to further deepen this sense of belonging to the virtual world,” Raphael says, “This opens up the doors to a much subtler realm of storytelling than has ever been possible in cinema.”
Chris Milk of Vrse echoes the sentiment. “Journalism, documentary and narrative all require rethinking from the ground up to be properly adapted into VR,” he says. “We still don’t know what a truly effective long form narrative experience in VR looks like, it’s something we’re at the frontlines of discovering. VR is a unique medium in that its format is not fixed at its birth. As technology develops, our ability to immerse you within stories grows exponentially, and new tools are being invented and discovered constantly. We’ve spent a little over a year creating work at Vrse that covers the traditional spectrum of storytelling we’ve all become familiar with. This includes cinematic work, more abstract and experiential projects, horror, documentary, journalistic experiences and more. We’re barely scratching the surface of what’s possible.”
The moments of calm between story beats, which are edited out of most films, are now chances to further deepen this sense of belonging to the virtual world.
Milk and Raphael aren’t the only ones who see an unlimited potential for the world of VR. A recent Goldman Sachs report predicted the industry will be an $80 billion market by 2025. In order for that to occur, it needs to catch on with the masses. And how does that happen with new technology that really needs to be experienced to be believed?
Both Milk and Raphael mention that the less tech savvy the person, the easier it seems to be to immerse themselves in VR. “When we travelled to Kenya to shoot our experience with the Maasai, the very first thing we did was show them a previous episode in our Nomads series from Mongolia,” Raphael says. “The experience of virtual reality didn’t feel strange to the Maasai. They seemed to live this as something that’s naturally aligned with their senses and with how they’re used to experiencing reality. Most of the Maasai in that village had actually never traveled out of the Amboseli region and had had very little contact with digital technologies. They took their first trip abroad through virtual reality. Afterwards they spent hours talking about the animals, people and landscapes they had experienced, with the same level of passion and excitement as if those had been real-life events.”
If the technology continues to advance at the current rate, enabling quality, comfortable headsets to be made affordable for the masses, the thought of most homes owning one doesn’t feel that far off. The greatest challenge right now seems to be in the content creation department, wrestling VR’s unlimited potential into something more manageable.
“It takes a lot to retrain the brain to think in 360º,” Milk says. “Instead of letting ourselves be driven by the desire to show the audience something, we’ve had to turn our thinking around. In VR, you have to be driven by the desire to let the audience explore, to discover an experience or a story for themselves. We try to dream beyond the frame.”
The greatest challenge right now seems to be in the content creation department, wrestling VR’s unlimited potential into something more manageable.
My fear of VR from the start was that it would eventually throw traditional cinema into obsolescence. My beloved time in a cinema watching magic happen on screen: when a writer, director, actors and - so crucially - editors shape a story in front of my eyes in the way only the masters can do. I don’t imagine there will come a time when I’m not interested in how Hank Corwin edits a film, or how Paul Thomas Anderson directs one. And I can report after experiencing stories in virtual reality and doing days of research into the technology and trend reports, I’m not afraid of that happening anymore. Virtual Reality is a totally different beast, one where I get to explore inside an entire world, where I get to play the editor.
Raphael puts it perfectly: “For thousands of years, human beings have shared stories with one another and expressed themselves through visual mediums that offer a representation of reality (drawing, painting, photography, cinema). Virtual reality will be an evolution from that, allowing humans to express themselves and communicate through a medium that really aligns with the human senses and with how we naturally experience and interact with reality as human beings. Some people will certainly escape from reality through virtual reality, but at the other end of the spectrum, the medium will allow individuals to connect to one another, feel for one another, and share memories and experiences in an extraordinarily powerful way.”
When I left the Vrse offices after experiencing most of their offerings in virtual reality, I finally felt excited about the new medium, particularly for the power it could have in documentary storytelling. The ability to explore a scene independently is thrilling, and the closeness you’re able to feel to the characters is pretty mind-bending. Every other way I’ve been entertained by a story – sitting in a chair staring forward at a screen or a stage or a podium, and even looking down at a book – really does go against the natural design of my body. I’m still a believer in the sacred experience of going to a cinema to watch a good movie. But in VR, for the first time ever, the experience of being entertained fits right along with how my body naturally wants to work. I experience life and the world around me as an active participant, and now VR means I can experience stories in the same way.