How to read Virtual Reality?

6 experts on how to unpack a VR experience critically

The VR trains is rolling, accelerated by corporations that act as innovators as much as they push as advertisers. But to discuss VR as content in a cultural sense, that’s VR not seen through the lens of technology is rare. Naturally. Virtual reality roots in tech and also gamers (for whom most 360 films must look like child’s play) have had their say. So the experience of virtual reality has been foremost framed by geeky blogs, and some cutting-edge tech mags such as Wired (thankfully). Yet, the time has come to move beyond the headsets (yes, still pretty heavy and no, not pretty) and into the content and that can be artful.

Courtesy of Efe Kurnaz for Limina Immersive

It is in this sphere that Limina Immersive found its hold, led by Catherine Allen. She helped some early VR productions of the BBC along and nowadays organises curated VR screenings with her startup. Limina’s focus is on both the cultural context and the audience and it was in that frame, they held their first VR Weekender, a mini festival at Watershed in Bristol.

A panel discussion at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio kicked off the series.

Catherine Allen had asked all panelists to answer one question: How to critically acclaim VR? In other words, how to read (and maybe rate) an experience of virtual reality?

How do you read (and rate) a virtual reality experience?

Catherine herself set the scene. She thinks, VR allows you to move away from the black rectangle of a screen. For her, the headset is a “liminal device, an in-between space” that you have to go through to get somewhere, to be within the experience. A bit like Alice’s rabbit hole.

For Catherine, that feeling of presence, which VR is famed for, remains an illusion but one that we can, if not must, submit ourselves to. To let go is to allow yourself to be inside the experience. Once within, your are embodied.

Says Catherine: “VR is ‘storybeing’ rather than storytelling.”

For the aspiring critique of VR, this means to allow yourself to be within first and to critique only afterwards. (Not that it is possible to take notes when in a headset anyway.) However, the opportunity to see a VR experience twice (at least) would be useful, especially as press, but has often been impossible due to long wait times, short slots, and the exclusivity of the headset. The chance to review in the most literal sense would be much appreciated.

This secluded nature of a virtual reality experience was also a topic for the next panelists, Tessa Ratuszynska, Documentary Filmmaker, Installation Artist and Producer for VR and Performance. To her, presence is not a question in VR as the medium requires ones full attention anyway.

Says Tessa: “No other medium demands so much attention as does VR.”

The question how to value a VR experience to Tessa is then, whether her attention is rewarded in respect. In her view, VR that does so successfully relates to theatre and installation art more than it does to cinema. Such VR manages to “address the viewer in that space.” This effect increases subjectivity, when it feels as if “this happens to me,” Tessa explains.

Tessa Ratuszynska, VR producer. Pic: Nora Manthey

At the same time, Tessa believes that VR is a “radical art form,” at least potentially so. It can be “subversive and challenge the dominant perspective of film,” which for Tessa is valuable and can create engagement.

Says Tessa: “There is no ‘mastery of the maker’ if VR is at its best.”

From this, comes virtual reality’s potential to activate an audience. Tessa calls this “activated participation” that serves as a reminder of real life, where we have the ability to act, and so it becomes political.

This “enlightening activation” counteracts the overpowering feeling of being in headset for her. However, Tessa is well aware, that this activation does not “just happen.”

Says Tessa: “The key misconception’s of VR, that by putting on a headset you would take the perspective of another.”

The reality is, that you remain just you, hence her focus on subjectivity. So to activate participation or to even inspire action in real life, VR needs good storytelling that reverberates to our reality. If anything, good VR should use its power of decentralisation by making us realise how much the world is actually a reflection of ourselves.

Says Tessa: “VR should decentre or destabilize and expose our subjectivity.”

This made me think of my experience of “Step to the Line” by Ricardo Laganaro. In my review, I saw it as a lost opportunity of true positioning as the VRX itself deals with the actual practice of positioning used by feminist activists as well as in critical whiteness seminars.

Still from ‘Step to the Line’. Ricardo Laganaro for Oculus.

The next speaker was Verity McIntosh, who is the Managing Producer at Watershed’s R&D lab, the Pervasive Media Studio. Verity took a practical perspective in which the rules of genre, aesthetics and personal taste that apply to any critique still apply to VR as well. Specific to virtual reality is though, how we describe our own taste in VR for example, and that can hardly happen in terms of technology.

Says Verity: “VR critique is not about tech journalism leading the charge.”

Instead, virtual reality experiences should be described in the language of film or book reviews. Then “content leads rather than coming to see if the headset feels weird,” describes Verity. 
Once VR critique will become more established, us reviewers will also have to glance back at ourselves, and decide, or maybe find, whether to take a top-down or potentially crowd-led approach.

Asks Verity: “Will it be authoritative, or will it be the crowd, where We review what we do?

The next panelists are all practitioners such as Mitch Turnbull. She is both a director and producer and has been making 360 experiences. She pointed out that when it comes to virtual reality, we are all beginners. She means that we are all experimenters and there are hardly any professionals, or say the industry is not set in its ways yet.

Says Mitch: “We are all VRgins.”

It is a thought I have heard from many practitioners such as Jaunt’s Canaan Rubin: “Shoot something. Just take a camera, go out and experiment.”

Back to Mitch Turnbull. She made another point about storytelling. In VR, she finds: “The Challenge is to mould the experience and the story, while storytelling is spatial.” There follows, the thought process is not linear but random rather. To her, this makes the creation of empathy ever more important. Note, Mitch did not mean the empathy some VR documentary might claims to achieve “like a machine” but the simple empathy for a character, the bit of information that gets you interested in watching, hearing and feeling someone’s story in the first place.

Jen Stein would jump on that thought, planned or not. She is a design researcher at UWE and started her presentation by framing VR as an “existential crisis”.

Asks Jen: “Who am I in VR? What happens if stories jump from the screen into our living room?”
VR as existential question. Limina Immersive panel at the Pervasive Media Studio. Pic: Nora Manthey

Forher, all this freedom of the viewer begs another question: “How do we tell people what (if) they can do?” As an experience designer, Jen got some pointers on offer, such as referring to things we know, that is intuition, or intuitive design such as the UX of a banana. But to fascinate an audience you must step beyond the intuitive and into the surprising. People having made their first strokes (or strides) in Tiltbrush for example, were then asked to step into their own artwork. Another of Jen’s examples was a virtual game of tennis in which your avatar was a tennis player - in form of a unicorn.

Sign me up, please. Talking about Tiltbrush — where are the artists (apart those here in Google) jumping on the medium?

To complete the circle, John Durrant, director and writer of the serenely interactive ‘Wonderful You’ VRX by BDH Immersive took us back to the beginning. He had brought a tangible device, an old 3D View Master — over a billion were sold in the 1970ies. In the advert of the time, Henry Fonda and a very young Jodie Foster praise the thing: “It’s truly immersive. And educational.” That’s 1971.

Fast forward just short of two decades and John uncovered Sony promoting the Play Station 1 in 1988. Their ‘Double Life’ campaign aimed to catch the adults’ attention with the slogan “I’ve lived.”

In the hope to inspire some more thought and with many thanks to all those quoted above and involved.