From a distance, a small group of people standing in the far corner of a lounge at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival’s Spring Studios is a curious sight. They’re all wearing headphones and face masks, standing clustered together, looking every which way, moving their heads around on occasion, but otherwise immobilized and silent. They’re immersed in one of a set of VRSE’s virtual worlds of their choosing, essentially becoming voyeurs embedded in places like a TV production studio, a political rally, or a far away refugee camp.
They’re not just watching the filmed (or graphical) scenes in front of them on their mini screens, they have the sense of standing inside the scenes, big as life, surrounded by the film as it moves forward in time. While listening to audio narration, they’re able to turn their heads 360 degrees to see what’s going on around them, left and right, but also up, down, in front, and behind. Like a remote, pivoting camera, they can look as much as they want, but they can’t move physically within the scenes or interact in any way with the people they’re watching. Do they feel as if they’re actually part of the audience attending a live TV broadcast? Witnessing news events as if they were there, feet on the ground? Teleporting themselves into an otherwise inaccessible place to see what it’s like? Or does it feel like something else altogether?
Virtual reality is in the midst of an ongoing renaissance, sparking incredible interest from all along the spectrum, including tech giants like Facebook, young startups, big movie studios and independent filmmakers. VRSE [is] a new production company … formed by artist and filmmaker, Chris Milk [with producers Patrick Milling Smith and Brian Carmody] … it consists of VRSE.works (production), VRSE.farms (storytelling) and VRSE.tools (hardware), with the focus expected to be completely on making virtual reality experiences … Ultimately, for Milk … the key is to figure out what the language of storytelling in VR is. “It’s not a just a movie anymore; it’s completely different.” (Edgar Alvarez, Engadget)
“With virtual reality, I’m not interested in the novelty factor,” says … Milk. “I’m interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium we’ve had before to connect one human being to another.” (Stuart Dredge, The Guardian)
[VRSE] hit the ground running, unveiling the first film shot in virtual reality for the UN at the World Economic Forum in Davos … CLOUDS OVER SIDRA follows a 12-year-old girl in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, home to 84,000 Syrian refugees, as she goes to school, to her makeshift tent and even to the football pitch. (Jeff Beer, Fast Company)
[This] virtual reality film was created in a collaboration between the UN Millennium Campaign, UNICEF Jordan, Samsung, … and VRSE.works … Gabo Arora, Senior Adviser to UN and Director, Producer and Writer of CLOUDS OVER SIDRA [commented],“I want to influence decision makers, first and foremost. I don’t think all of them truly know what [Sidra’s life] is like and, in giving them this experience, I’m hopeful they will be moved to weigh greater the consequences of their decisions … Immersing oneself in the virtual world is massively different than passively watching it on a screen. Our goal was to create a powerful tool that will change the landscape for those working in peacekeeping, emergency response and development.” (UN Millennium Campaign, End Poverty 2015)
In addition to CLOUDS OVER SIDRA, other projects by Chris Milk on view at Tribeca include, the EVOLUTION OF VERSE, featuring gorgeous, computer-generated environments morphing one into another, the SNL Live 40th Anniversary studio show with Jerry Seinfeld, and the Millions March protest against police brutality in the streets of New York City produced for Vice in collaboration with Milk and Spike Jonze.
In his March 2015 TED talk, Milk summed up his thoughts about his experiments with virtual reality as follows,
“VR is a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected, and ultimately, we become more human.” (TED March 2015)
Note: To experience VRSE’s VR films first hand, download the VRSE app (http://vrse.com/) and view using Coogle cardboard (https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/) and any smartphone or with the new Samsung Gear VR (http://www.samsung.com/global/microsite/gearvr/).