After its debut in 2016, Tribeca Immersive’s Virtual Arcade was back at Tribeca 2017 in full force for a second year, combined this time around with the Storyscapes Program, now in its fifth year, bridging filmmaking, technology and storytelling. 

 

Loren Hammonds, Tribeca Film Festival Programmer, described Tribeca’s ultimate interest in showcasing emerging immersive VR projects,

 

“As VR has continued to evolve technologically, so has the storytelling. Our mission is to shine a light on those creators pushing the boundaries of the medium to move beyond the demo phase and deliver on the promise of fully realized stories and truly transformative experiences.”  (Tribecafilm.com)

 

The 2017 Storyscapes lineup featured three world premieres, including six projects from four countries: (1) BLACKOUT (by Scatter: Alexander Porter, Yasmin Elayat, James George, Mei-Ling Wong) – political reflections of real people as experienced on the NYC subway, (2) DRAW ME CLOSE (by Jordan Tannahill) – memoir of a son with his mother as she deals with her cancer diagnosis, (3) THE ISLAND OF THE COLORBLIND (by Sanne de Wilde) – the world as seen through a black & white lens, (4) THE LAST GOODBYE (by Gabo Arora, Ari Palitz) – testimony of a Holocaust survivor touring the Majdanek Concentration Camp, (5) NEUROSPECULATIVE AFROFEMINISM (by Hyphen-Labs – Ashley Baccus-Clark, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal, Nitzan Bartov) – exploring the experiences, present and imagined futures, of women of color, and (6) TREEHUGGER WAWONA (by Marshmellow Laser Feast) – getting inside the inner world of a giant Sequoia tree.

 

The 2017 Virtual Arcade showcased twenty-four projects from six countries, seventeen of which were world premieres. Among the many highlights were ARDEN’S WAKE, an animated, post-apocalyptic story created by Eugene Chung, Jimmy Maidens, Devon Penney, Annmarie Koenig, Bruna Berford, HALLELUJAH, a multidimensional musical experience reimagining Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah created by Zach Richter, Bobby Halvorson, Eames Kolar, THE PROTECTORS:  WALK IN THE RANGER’S SHOES, a harrowing experience following park rangers on the lookout for elephant tusk poachers at Garamba National Park co-directed by Kathryn Bigelow and Imraan Ismail, and TREE, a haptically enhanced experience of growing into a tree from a seedling created by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter.

 

While excitement was definitely in the air at the Tribeca Festival Hub in lower Manhattan in terms of the recent advances in VR technology and the variety of experiments with new narrative formats on offer, it was clear from a walk around the floor that VR still has a long way to go in terms of the user experience. Although timed tickets were issued online in advance and electronic waiting list signups were available at the location, the waiting lists filled up early. Many visitors were left in the frustrating position of spending most of their allotted time watching others in headsets without ever getting to try out the VR experiences for themselves. Demand was high and there were simply not enough headset installations to go around. 

 

After his visit to the VR Arcade, Daniel Eagan (Film Journal, April 2017), summed up the current downsides of VR as sees them, 

 

(1) Moviegoers may find VR projects isolating. Viewers are required to don heavy headsets that cut off all light from the outside world. Stereo headphones increase the feeling of sensory deprivation. Although many VR projects ask users to walk through landscapes, viewers are tethered by wires and cables, making movement difficult. The brain’s inability to connect the VR environment with the actual world—a horizon that keeps shifting, for example—can leave viewers uncomfortably disoriented … 

 

(2) Many of the narrative devices developed by filmmakers over the last hundred years don’t work yet in VR.  Lighting is difficult to control. Everything is in wide shot. “Close-ups” are achieved through scale, by having characters or objects appear to move closer to the user. Simple edits, let alone montages, often prove so jarring as to upset viewers … 

 

(3) And VR is expensive. The HTC Vive, the current “must have” headset, runs around $800. Virtual reality will continue to improve, but right now it’s a format in search of an audience. 

 

Clearly, VR still has a long way to go. From the looks of things at Tribeca, though, there is little doubt that despite its continued limitations, interest in the potential for new forms of immersive VR storytelling remains high among film festival fans who are willing to wait in long lines just for the possibility of spending a few minutes getting a glimpse of what it’s all about.

 

KW