In the 1960s, when I was a child, my father gave my sister and me a Viewmaster, bright red plastic binoculars with a slit to accomodate a circular rotation of thumb-nail size color slides. He mounted the disc and I peered into the viewfinder and a 3D photo of the Grand Canyon made me feel dislocated, as if I were actually there. He pulled the a trigger again and again, which sent me to The Alamo, Las Vegas, Mount Rushmore and I recognized that the thrill this produced was different from the excitement of watching television, a technology so new that a few of our neighbors didn’t own one yet.
I experienced a similar feeling of dislocation, of being suddenly present in a different place, while visiting, in real life, the The Virtual Arcade at the Tribeca Film Festival. There, on a bright weekday morning, I joined hundreds of others who were experiencing, many for the first time as I was, Virtual Reality.
Elevator doors slid apart and, after displaying my colored wristband to a bouncer, I entered a huge, darkened room pulsing with bluish light emitted from screens. People stood deep in waiting lines that snaked between viewing stations consisting of a sign, a chair and a person wearing a shirt that said “Crew”.
I tried to asses which line was shortest, and headed for “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart.” I had a thing for Pluto. I’d made it out of paper mache in third grade as part of a group project solar system. Now, poor Pluto was no longer a planet. It had been downgraded to a “dwarf” in 2006. A fact I had to memorize when I was eight was now fiction–perfect metaphor for the adventure I was embarking upon.
I gazed past the few people in front of me, at the current viewer, a guy in a swivel chair. He wore dark wraparound goggles, clunky as a ski mask. The goggles were topped by huge headset earphones reminiscent of ones I used to wear over hot-rollers as I sat on shag carpeting listening to Procol Harum.
I watched the guy in the chair, his face obscured by headgear. VR watching is, at present, a solitary experience, akin to early film-watching when you had to stand in line to slip coins into a slot of a Mutoscope. The guy used his feet to make the chair twirl, randomly reaching for things that weren’t there. He looked like a complete dork, but — I couldn’t wait to take his place.
Then, he rose and the line attendant who also served as a “spotter” adjusted straps on the goggles to fit the head of the woman in front of me. She put on the mask, settled into in the chair, sat upright suddenly and gave out a yelp. The spotter told me, “That’s what everyone does, their first time.”
They say VR is like sex–you never forget your initiation into the experience. I’ll never forget the disorienting moment after cushioned disks were placed over my ears and I leaned back, masked, in the chair, and surround-sound (opera) came up and I saw footage on a screen inches from my eyes. Suddenly, I wasn’t watching a movie, I was moving inside it, bodyless, floating serenely through space, hurtling between stars, soaring over rugged Plutonian mountains, through snow flurries so real I could almost feel them pinging my incorporeal cheeks.
The technical term for what I was doing was engaging in a “stereoscopiec VR experience.” This is the starter kit for VR– you watch a smartphone inserted into a headset, wearing earphones. The headset I was wearing was top of the line–Samsung Gear VR, but later, I heard about a DIY hack so you can watch at home. For $15 you can order a Google Cardboard headset which turns your phone into a VR viewing machine. The New York Times issues them free to subscribers so they can watch the growing body of VR experiences they are creating, some of which could be seen at the festival, including the Pluto experience that was blowing my mind.
Some people get what’s called “VR vertigo” because of the disconnect between brain and body. Your brain is convinced your body is doing something it’s not: flying or walking or running or falling. I didn’t succumb to this feeling. As I flew over Pluto, the planet that no longer was, what I felt was a scalp-tingling recognition that what I was experiencing–even in its beta, primitive form–was an entirely new medium with as much potential for impacting the way we live, play and work as the early internet held for its first blindsided surfers.
This year, the Cannes Festival lineup includes VR screenings for the first time. The Marché du Film’s NEXT section which explores film innovation hosted two days of VR screenings. There are no awards for VR films. Yet. (Cannes, get it together!) But if there were, I’m certain one of the films I saw at Tribeca would win for best animation. It was one of the shows you couldn’t see from a swivel chair. The lines at Tribeca were longest for these installations, which you had to experience in booths that looked like dressing rooms, where you could walk around in the movie, seeing sets, characters and action from all angles.
Allumette was the booth installation getting the most buzz. After days of waiting (lines were up to 9 hours long) I was finally geared up and tethered to wires (so sensors on the wall could keep track of my coordinates) and as soon as the film started, I realized this production was polished, more Hollywood, than any other VR I’d seen. Artful titles came up accompanied by a sweeping, orchestral score. Then, fade to black and tiny, yellow-lit windows appeared, figures silhouetted in them, one window, two, windows popping up all around me and I was inside a magical city shrouded by night.
Alumette is animated in gorgeous, stop-motion-like animation–but it isn’t stop-motion, it’s like nothing I’d ever seen. Tiny bridges and buildings revealed themselves as dawn came up and a Lilliputian ship approached, slipping right by my shoulder, docking on air. I peered at it closely, admiring the finely-wrought details that made its presence almost palpable: chinks in the wood, reflective iron siding. I could examine it as closely as I wanted, as if it were a toy in a museum. I just couldn’t touch it. The closer I peered, the more “real” the boat seemed, although it was tiny, the size of my hand. I felt myself to be as big as a god, invisible, omnicient. I realized I didn’t have to stay in one place, I could walk around to look at the boat from its other side. Trepidatiously, I tapped the floor with one foot; my stomach butterflied at the prospect of walking forward on nothing. I had to muster actual bravery to make myself step forward on what my brain knew was linoleum, but my heart believed was thin air.
Cautiously, I walked to the other side of the boat which was open, like a dollhouse. A tiny girl was inside, with her mother. The girl, I guessed, was Alumette. I won’t spoil the story by describing it further, but I encourage you to seize any opportunity to see Allumette. It’s a story loosely based on the classic The Little Matchgirl, a fractured fairytale created by Penrose Studios, a VR storytelling company formed by Pixar alum Eugene Chung whose most recent employ was at Oculus, a company that makes VR headsets, co-creating their Story Studio.
Allumette is 20 minutes, which, in VR production is practically War and Peace. Most VR productions last less than ten minutes. Allumette is the first ” feature” I saw in that was an actual story, an arc with a beginning, middle and end, following the way people have been telling story for centuries. Wordless–but a complete and beautiful narrative that made me stagger out of the booth, excited not just by the caliber of the entertainment I’d witnessed but by the possiblities I sensed in VR for storytellers.