Friday, September 27, 2019

What I Learned at The Portal Virtual Reality Festival

Last weekend I attended The Portal virtual reality festival hosted by Film Independent and LMU. Prior to this I had tried a virtual reality installation at Comic-Con and done a few promotional virtual reality experiences in Google Cardboard, but the technology was still pretty new to me.

I stepped off the elevator into the Playa Vista campus of LMU’s film school – a spacious, airy floor of a large building (full disclosure: I teach a screenwriting class at LMU). I was early for the 90-minute time slot I had reserved. I was directed to a “VR Bar” where I took a seat and was given an Oculus headset loaded with a selection of five short VR experiences to try while I waited. I selected a documentary on tennis player Arthur Ashe. When it was over, I lined up for the main event.

There were eleven virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) installations scattered throughout the space. During my 90-minute time slot, I was able to experience four VR installations and one AR installation. Afterwards, I went back to the VR Bar and watched two more VR experiences (there must be a better term for those!) The eight sessions I ultimately did ranged from three minutes to eighteen minutes in length. Most of the experiences in the main program were done standing where I could turn or walk in the VR or AR space. One of the main experiences, and the experiences at the VR Bar, were done sitting. The installations used a variety of headsets, including the Oculus Go and Vive.

The VR Bar

What Works and What Doesn’t

The virtual reality effect was excellent overall. The sense of being in a 3D space was convincing. Most of the programs had extremely high production value, though there were a couple that seemed more like student projects. Some of the headsets were wired to computers, which felt a bit unsafe in the standing VR experiences. In one, the narrative led me to turn continuously clockwise to follow the action, causing the cable to wrap around me. The wireless headsets were much better, though all the headsets rested heavily on my cheeks.

Creatively, the virtual reality in most of the experiences didn’t seem to add much over what the experience of watching a traditional filmed version of the material might have been. There were two notable exceptions. First was an experience called Gloomy which was a Tim Burton-esque Claymation piece in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas. It played out in dioramas with characters that appeared to be a few inches tall, sort of like looking into animated doll houses or toy displays. It was really cool, but the style wouldn’t be appropriate for many stories.

The second was a piece called Traveling While Black, a documentary about the Green Book. It was mostly set in a famous Black-friendly diner. It was a sit-down installation, which often positioned me in a booth in the virtual diner. There were mirrors along one side, which were used creatively – for example, showing a scene from the 50’s in the mirrors while inside the diner it was present day. Also, there was an interview with Tamir Rice’s mother* where the effect was as if sitting across from her in a booth as she told her story. It was incredibly powerful.

Traveling While Black Installation

In other cases, the VR was either extraneous, simply letting the setting expand into my peripheral vision, or downright annoying. Any time the camera moved in the virtual space while I was standing still in the physical space, I felt disoriented and off balance. A particularly bad scene involved standing on the front of an animated train zooming through the countryside. It was so disorienting I turned to look at the train conductor instead of the scenery. A friend told me she did the same thing in that experience.

Also annoying was the sitting experiences that required me to turn all the way around in my chair to view action behind me. For example, one scene in the documentary on Arthur Ashe put me next to the net on a tennis court. Ashe shook hands with his opponent and then walked behind me. I watched the opponent get into position and then stand waiting. I realized I was supposed to look back at Ashe directly behind me. Twisting around was uncomfortable, and I immediately wished they’d placed the camera so the action stayed in front of me. The idea of VR is that you have a 360-degree environment, but it’s still usually most satisfying just to look forward at the action.

The AR installation I tried had some advantages. In AR, you see a virtual overlay on top of the real world. Though the particular AR experience I did was fairly simplistic – an actor delivering a Shakespeare monologue while a tree went through its seasons behind him – it was nice to be able to move around the virtual actor with no disorientation or fear of falling. Although many of the VR experiences promised you could move within the VR space, I rarely took more than a couple steps in any direction. Any more would have risked stumbling or bumping into the walls. 

The Economics of VR

It was clear to me that VR has some big structural disadvantages for large audience venues that mean it will never replace movie theaters or theme parks. First, most of the standing VR experiences were in large empty rooms to allow the participant to move around safely. Almost all allowed only a single user at a time, although a couple allowed two people on opposite sides of the room. That means there was a significant amount of space required per participant.

At The Portal festival, it appeared that there were about thirty people allowed in each time window. Most participants still only got to do three or four of the eleven experiences in the 90 minutes, despite each experience being relatively short. I really hustled to squeeze in five. Also, there were probably twice as many festival staffers as users at any given time. Typically, one staffer was in the room to start the VR, clean the headset between uses, and make sure the participant didn’t trip or run into anything while in the VR space. An additional staffer stood outside reserving times for participants, and a couple managed the main check-in table.

The standing VR experiences are by their nature space-intensive, labor-intensive endeavors. It’s hard to imagine how they could be effectively done on a scale serving hundreds of customers a night like a movie theater. The seated VR experiences allowed more people to participate simultaneously in a smaller space, but if you’re just sitting in a chair with your personal headset, you might as well be at home.

Home use makes more sense for VR, but it still seems as though seated VR will be more practical. In the installations at the festival, there were no coffee tables to trip me or lamps I could accidentally knock over. How many people will be willing to dedicate an empty room of their house or apartment to VR?

VR is often talked about as the future of entertainment. While there are clearly things that VR does better than film or television, there is a lot it doesn’t do as well. I think it still remains to be seen how much mass appeal the technology has.

*Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old unarmed boy killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014.


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