Postcards from the VR Arcade

Lance Ulanoff
May 2 · 8 min read

Virtual reality directors at the Tribeca Film Festival are blazing a path to the future of storytelling

Unceded Territories, about indigenous tribes and colonialism, asked participants to don some unusual VR headgear. (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

was not supposed to be a nice day. The forecast called for clouds, rain, but the sky was blue and sunny, the air sharp, if a little cool.

It’s the kind of climate that makes it hard to tear yourself away for a sojourn in the virtual world.

With the sun still warming my face, I wandered down Manhattan’s Varick St to the Tribeca Film Festival and with one last glance at a welcoming sun, I headed for the Virtual Arcade.

I’ve spent a lot of time using VR headsets from Facebook’s Oculus, Google, Sony, and others, often focusing more on the quality of the headgear than the experience. This time would be different. Tribeca has assembled almost a dozen different immersive and often narrative virtual reality films and experiences.

There’s a lot of interest in virtual reality storytelling — at least from film makers.

A few weeks prior, I got a preview of a short POV, sci-fi action film by Robert Rodriguez, called The Limit. The roughly 20-minute VR movie, which I watched on an Oculus Go, stars Michelle Rodriguez and is about augmented humans trying to, I think, uncover some sort of conspiracy. In it, you are one of the characters, which gives you freedom to look around as scenes unfold. It was fun, unusual, but also didn’t feel like much of a film. Instead, it felt as if I’d stepped, mid-stream, into a first-person-shooter video game.

I was hoping for something more at the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade, which runs through May 4 (the Festival ends on the 5th).

The Real Space

Designed nothing like an arcade and more like a bizarre flea market, the Virtual Arcade is a collection of enclosed rooms on one side and open-space kiosks on the other. Before walking the corridor, though, I turned right and found a mid-sized room set aside for something called Gymnasia from Clyde Henry Productions. Like a number of other VR experiences in the arcade, the directors and creators spent considerable time and effort building real-world visuals and experiences to complement their VR narratives.

Inside the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Reality Arcade (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

Gymnasia’s room was filled with small, blue classroom chairs and the floor was littered with papers from school- and music books. In the back, sat a green dummy dressed in a school uniform. It was creepy, but also, like most of the other real-world efforts, somewhat superfluous. No physical space could match the endless possibilities of VR.

I entered tentatively and then noticed a row of Oculus Go headsets along the far wall. I chose a seat and with the assistance of a woman incongruously dressed in a lab coat, put on the headset.

The room where I viewed Gynmasia. (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

Gynmasia is best described as a virtual art installation or think piece. There’s no narrative. I looked around at the very realistic and totally decrepit school gymnasium and waited for something to happen. On the gym floor around me were at least a dozen basketballs. After a moment or two, the balls started to bounce, then a truly bizarre doll/robot looked in on the space (later a real version of it roamed the arcade floor). A moment later, I was on stage next to, yes, that green school boy. He sang a mournful tune and I found myself wondering what had happened to his school and wishing I could help him, as he slowly turned his head and we locked eyes. Then it was over. The whole thing lasted about six minutes.

I wandered out of that room looking for my next VR experience. As I walked the arcade corridor, I could see people standing in front of blank or sometimes decorated or projector walls, all wearing VR headsets, each of them in their own worlds.

A Drop in the Ocean’s VR experience was in the center of this structure. (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

At the front of the hall, I found a lovely wave like structure promoting an experience called “Drop in the Ocean” from Adam May, Chris Campkin, and Chris Parks. Following the corkscrew path, I wound my way to the center where an HTC Vive headset hung. Three other people put on their headsets, as well. Inside the VR, I could see pointillist versions of each of them. We were all encouraged to take a step forward, which put my feet on top of a very thick and squishy cushion. The VR app told me was a giant jelly fish; I tried to go with it. Standing on the cush…er…jellyfish kept me somewhat off-balance for the duration of the VR experience.

In this case, the developers sought to teach us about the deleterious impact of garage and plastic on ocean life. The journey started at the pristine bottom of a CGI ocean where we could learn about deep sea life, but then we floated up into a horrifying mass of garbage and watched in dismay as small and large fish, including a whale shark, mistook floating plastic for food. It was disturbing, though I’m not sure being virtually under the ocean made a bigger impact on me than if I had simply watched a standard documentary about sea life and garbage.

As You Like It

There was no discernable larger theme in the virtual arcade, which meant you could easily find a VR experience about war, like War Remains from Dan Carlin and MWM Immersive, or a director’s recreation of his own ayahuasca experience (Ayahuasca from Jan Kounen) next to a scale-model of Doctor Who’s Tardis.

We three companions. (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

Like many others, the BBC is dabbling a bit in virtual reality, launching its own BBC VR Hub, a small startup studio that’s just starting to show the world some of its VR creations. For Tribeca, its premiering Doctor Who: The Runaway, an animated Doctor Who VR story featuring the voice of the current Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. For the 14-minute linear narrative, they had me sit down, put on an HTC Vive headset and handed me a single controller (I was told to use just one button). The story, which was written by the BBC’s in-house Doctor Who team, puts you inside the new Tardis where you watch and minimally interact with the Doctor and a somewhat combustible guest. It was a fun and entertaining diversion, and easily one of the most consumer-friendly VR projects.

A few doors down, though, I found one of the Arcade’s most challenging experiences.

Writer/Director Celine Tricart wouldn’t share anything about her VR creation, The Key, before I experienced it for myself. She smiled at me and indicated that there was a sort of surprise. The exterior of the enclosed room gave nothing away; there was just a black door surrounded by a wall literally covered in tiny keys.

The Key director Celine Tricart. (Photo courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

Before I entered, they placed a Bose soundbar around my neck and when I opened the door, I found an actress standing with her back to me. She never spoke, but I heard her voice anyway through the Bose bar. Eventually she assisted me in putting on an Oculus Rift headset and earphones. She also handed me two Rift controllers, though I was instructed to avoid touching any of the buttons.

The story started in black and white and clearly dealt with deep loss, but in a wholly abstract way. The motif of a key remained central to the story, but I was still lost. Even so, the characters, which were really like orb companions, were endearing and when they were devoured by a monster, I was sad. [Spoiler ahead] Eventually, I learned that the virtual key I held was, essentially, a key to a life I lost and one that I could never return to. I was, in the VR experience, a refugee and, in the end, I was standing in the very real-looking ruins of my home. It was pretty devastating.

When I took off the headset, the mute actress swept her hand across one of the real screens on the real wall to reveal a crucial piece of information:

“Many refugees still carry the key to their house even though it may be destroyed, or they will never see it again.”

Tricart, who is an immigrant, not a refugee, told me she spent time at refugee camps in Iraq collecting stories and learned how the refugees kept the keys to the homes they can never return to.

She admitted that the experience is initially a kind of trick, in that you don’t know until the end that it’s about refugees. There is, Tricart told me, a kind of “fatigue of the public for refugee stories.” Her mission was “to find a way to go around this emotional wall that we build between us and refugees.”

Tricart developed the VR experience in concert with Friends of Refugees and Oculus VR for Good. It was built over the course of 4 months in Maya, Z-Brush and imported into the Unity Engine.

Outside The Key VR experience. (Photo: Lance Ulanoff)

Calling The Key “holistically delicate,” Lauren Brockett, who is Director of Employment Services for the Friends of Refugees Career Hub, said they wanted The Key to be safe and welcoming. The hope, Brockett added, is that using VR helps build empathy and that, obviously, it doesn’t cause the viewer any kind of trauma. They’ve taken such care with The Key that, according to Brockett, even Refugees find the experience therapeutic.

While it was obvious The Key has an important message, I wondered how, with consumers’ still somewhat limited access — and even interest in — VR technology, The Key could reach the masses. Tricart agreed that it’s a difficult challenge, but she hopes to reach a broader audience through museums like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where it will be shown for free.

Line Up

I was surprised at some of the limits I encountered at the Arcade. More than once, I found myself queuing up to try an experience where there were just two available VR headsets and, in other cases, getting turned away because the VR experience was fully booked. If Tribeca’s goal was for the masses to experience the future of storytelling in VR, it should’ve brought in thousands more headsets.

This is what we all looked like, lost in our own VR worlds. (Photo courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

As I walked out of the arcade, nodding at those other intrepid VR-nauts and the telltale headset-shaped indents on their foreheads and cheeks, I felt torn. There’s no doubt that VR takes storytelling to new and often deeply impactful places, but it’s still constrained by things like price, availability, and comfort (good luck watching a two-hour movie wearing one of these headsets).

However, I expect innovation, tech miniaturization, and affordability for more immersive experiences (hello, Oculus Quest) to solve most of these issues, and with storytellers already inspired to create the next generation of immersive content, I’m starting to believe the future of narrative experience is VR.

Lance Ulanoff

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Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.