Image from Manu Jain at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade

Pushing the Limits of Our New Frontier

“I think we are in the baby steps…it is completely an experimental period, but I think the possibilities are amazing, and the dangers are enormous.” — Alejandro González Iñárritu on Virtual Reality

As I evolve from a one-celled organism to human, I’m frantically evading my predators to stay alive. Now I’m crouching to stay hidden from an alien attack. I then proceed to hunt for clues as I investigate a murder, and following that I’m in a brain watching as neurons fire across their pathways.

With its emphasis on immersive experiences, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival provided a great opportunity to explore the latest in where we are in virtual reality storytelling, and there are a few exciting trends.

1. There is a growing understanding that VR is an entirely new medium, and that it possesses a power to connect with people like we have never seen before.

There is a lot of exploration taking place to figure out how to best tell a story in the infancy of this new frontier, from completely guided narratives on one end, to letting viewers take ownership over the direction of the story on the other. For storytelling, I believe guided, third-person perspective with intricate attention paid to movement of the camera rig, and speed of that movement, will provide the strongest experiences for audiences as a fly on the wall within narratives. In the midst of this experimentation, however, it is already clear that while we as humans know we are entering a virtual world when we begin a story, everything about the experience sends signals from our brain throughout our body that make us believe, in that moment, this is real, and we are living and experiencing this right now.

As Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Birdman and The Revenant, noted about his first forays into creating VR narratives, “I find that in the good VRs…the limits are dissolved, and your senses are misleading — and it can be fantastic if used correctly”:

The virtual reality medium possesses the capability, as Iñárritu expresses, to “explore a narrative space and allow people to break dictatorship of the frame, allow people to claim that space, and now get into that space, and then have the whole pie. I think we are in the baby steps…it is completely an experimental period, but I think the possibilities are amazing, and the dangers are enormous”:

However, the very idea of these potential “dangers” is amazing to me because, as storytellers, we now have the capability to transport audiences to a world, and in a very real way, have them fully believe what they are experiencing is actually happening.

2. You can get a taste of what it is like to have the power to be omnipresent and invisible — viewers are being brought into the story spaces.

Creators are utilizing the tracking technology that tethered virtual reality platforms like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlaystationVR allow, such that viewers can walk about the setting within these realities, and explore scenes however and from wherever they please as the stories unfold.

In Arden’s Wake, a new virtual experience by Penrose Studios debuting at Tribeca’s Virtual Arcade, we are brought to a futuristic, Waterworld-like reality where New York is underwater, and a father and daughter are living in a lighthouse tall enough to be just above sea level. As the narrative is taking place, we have the capability to walk anywhere we want within this world throughout the experience, and watch the story from any spot we wish. As the characters are conversing in their lighthouse home, we can explore the house and watch their interactions while standing right next to them, get on our tippy toes and view from the rooms upstairs, kneel and watch from the kitchen downstairs.

As crisis strikes and the daughter must brace the terrifying waters, we can be right besides her sitting in her submarine, or step out into the water and watch as she tries to whiz by dangerous elements (with the audio changing depending on your choice, because it was designed to understand where you have moved within this world). We are given the omnipresent ability to be anywhere and everywhere.

Image from Manu Jain at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade

Also debuting at the Virtual Arcade, Broken Night (created by Eko, Hidden Content, and Realmotion) grants viewers a feeling of invisibility in the world it creates. In its plot, a woman is being questioned by a detective about a murder that took place in her home, but her memory is foggy and fragmented. As we experience the events of the night through flashbacks, we can walk about whichever room the scene places us in to investigate and gain different perspectives on the interactions between characters. And at pivotal forks in the story road, we are given the immersive ability to choose which character to follow, which has major effects upon the result of the narrative to get to the bottom of what happened.

This is a breakthrough in storytelling. Through utilizing virtual reality tracking to make settings explorable, we can be brought into stories in a way we have never experienced before, and it is a completely captivating feeling to be given a vehicle to be a part of these worlds. The potential of this capability is enormous for all genres, from science fiction battles in space to studying the body language in a heated dramatic interaction.

3. Creators are trying to bring you into actual realities, virtually.

Whether it is to bring you to a peak of a mountain, to develop and fly a hoverboard, understand the human condition, or experience history, people are being taken on a journey to real scenarios to understand situations in a way that words, pictures, and traditional video cannot quite capture.

At the premiere of The Protectors: Walk In the Ranger’s Shoes (created by Kathryn Bigelow, Imraan Ismail, Here Be Dragons, National Geographic, African Parks, and Annapurna Pictures), the film transports you to Garamba National Park to experience life as rangers in daily, violent danger as they try to protect elephants from poachers. Imraan Ismail explained of the creative goal, “We tried to capture as much as we could and to try and make [it] as personal to them and the experience so you could feel like you were there with them…what it’s like to be in ten-foot high elephant grass, but you don’t know what’s right on the other side, and you just stop, and listen, and it’s terrifying”:

National Geographic, which has always relied heavily on using visuals to drive its message, believes VR is a game-changing medium to bring its audience into the worlds it is trying to depict:

Transporting audiences to actual realities through VR can have a profound impact to potentially bring understanding and awareness to a host of real life situations, such as health and human rights advocacy, which is tremendously powerful.

There is huge potential as well in applying virtual reality storytelling to education. We can learn various subject matters by being immersed in their worlds, anywhere from studying ancient civilizations in elementary school to receiving training on the effects of various diseases upon the human body. In addition, the ability to bring people to actual realities through VR can be revolutionary for real-time events — we can all be at the International Space Station for the next space walk, or in the front row at the NBA Finals.

As we are still very much in the exploration period of Virtual Reality, it is tremendously exciting as storytellers to see how we are pushing the limits of this new medium.