I recently attended the first-ever Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival, and something happened to me that I have previously relegated to the world of William Gibson novels. I was in line for short films of the “Experimental” category – as opposed to Documentary, Animation, Live Action and, most mysterious of all, “Experience” – when a man with whom I had struck up a waiting-in-line conversation asked me if I wanted to see something cool. Of course, I said “yes,” and the stranger unzipped his backpack and pulled out a virtual reality headset not unlike the many being used about 10 feet in front of me. Instead of fancy noise-cancelling headphones, he lent me a pair of what seemed to be low-end ear buds out of his pocket. Within moments, I was in orbit around an alien planet, approaching a space station.
The man with the future in his backpack was showing me a personal project of his. It was still rough in places, but it could have easily fit into the festival, which was largely a collection of personal projects. Though the hype for VR has never been stronger, there’s still no consumer model. Filmmakers are independent by necessity; their work has an extremely limited potential audience. “My friends can’t watch my movie,” said Jessica Kantor, who directed a VR short film, “The Archer,” in the style of silent film. “I have to bring them over to my house just to show it to them.”
Which was much of the point of the festival, which is traveling to 10 cities throughout the United States and Canada: to debut films to people who had no other way to view it. An effective tactic to spread the gospel of VR, considering that many people only need a single experience with virtual reality to become a vehement convert. At one point, a woman reached out and grabbed my arm, as if to steady herself. She didn’t know who she was holding – I don’t think she cared. She was acting on instinct, a testament to the power that virtual reality can wield. It made me think of the urban legend of early moviegoers fleeing the theater during “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,” unaccustomed as they were to moving pictures.
It was my first venture into VR. That might have been strange enough as a solitary experience; in a room filled with excited crowds, it was positively surreal. Even after I’d strap on the goggles and headphones – which, before they turn on, are essentially a mild version of a sensory deprivation tank – I was aware of the throngs of people mere feet away. Then the film started, and my consciousness was torn in half.
While I had never experienced a media format that so completely engaged and engrossed me, I was acutely aware of my sudden lack of awareness of anything going on around me. I worried about my bag, which had been just in front of me a minute ago. I worried about gawking like a pelican in front of a crowd of spectators (one of which I had been, only moments before). When someone bumped my foot at one point, it felt like a violation of sorts.
In “Tana Pura” by Mike Tucker I watched colorful, worm-like ribbons materialize in time with the music, swimming close by and occasionally through me. “DMZ: Memories of a No Man’s Land” by Hayoun Kwon took me through the Korean de-militarized zone, including a harrowing, anxious night march that I knew involved a landmine. “Colosse,” Joseph Chen’s real-time virtual reality storytelling experience about an arctic hunter encountering a titanic creature, demonstrated the power of scale – something about pupillary distance in a VR rig meant that I understood, in a physical, visceral sense, that I was looking at something enormous.
And these were just a few of the VR shorts I experienced, the total number of which turned out to be far, far too many. “I think ten minutes is about the limit for comfortable time spent in VR,” acknowledged Rene Pinnell, founder of Kaleidoscope, architect of the festival, and a charming transhumanist. In my frenzy to absorb as much as I could before the end of the night, I had probably spent about two hours in it, collectively.
By the time Pinnell brought up five of the filmmakers who were showing work in the festival for a short Q&A, I was already beginning to feel the effects. I was nauseous, my head throbbed and my eyes were sore. I felt exhausted and ready to return to regular reality.
But the rest of the room wasn’t. The lines still stretched from one side of the room to the other, and few people were willing to give up their place. It’s hard to blame them; VR is still difficult to talk about. You just have to experience it, is a commonly surfacing sentiment in conversations about the technology. By the time the talk started, about a third of the seats were still empty, despite Pinnell’s best efforts to rally the crowd. “Don’t you want a front row seat to the future?” he asked into the microphone. And they did – that’s what they were waiting in line for.