It was 3 a.m. in Nairobi, Kenya when a man named Paul Simon — no relation to the singer — strapped on his virtual reality headset and hosted a discussion about George Floyd. The small event in Altspace, a social community run by Microsoft, found about a dozen cartoonish avatars standing around an expansive digital room as Simon explained his intent. “You guys should know that we are watching you,” Simon explained. “We have CNN here in Kenya, we have Fox News, we have all of that. It concerns some of us on a level that may be even more than in the U.S. This is personal.”
The ensuing conversation found Simon recapping his country’s history with colonialism, and juggling questions from the room. A stately man identified only as Tom, who helped Simon organize the event after meeting him at a weekly VR town hall event called “The Evening News,” put the globe-spanning gathering in context. “This is just a cool exemplification of what VR can be,” Tom told the crowd. “An event in one part of the world is now an event for the entire world. It’s amazing that someone living 5,000 miles away would find this personal.”
A few months ago, I would have found the prospects of tracking a major sociopolitical debate in VR to be a surreal concept lifted from the pages of speculative sci-fi. It took a pandemic to change that. In early March, as it became clear that crowded events would become impossible for quite some time, I purchased an entry-level ticket to VR with the Oculus Go. As it turns out, there is a whole world entirely free from COVID-19 hiding in plain sight.
VR can’t replace Cannes, but it will play host to Cannes XR, a virtual reality market with virtual parties; VR can’t replace moviegoing, but it has hosted premiere screenings and Q&As for films that had been scheduled to play at canceled festivals. And VR can’t replace filmmaking, but it’s a platform for storytellers finding new ways of exploring the medium. Nothing in VR can capture the emotional solidarity of participating in a protest, or the civil duty of venturing to the ballot box, but it can supplement aspects of society in desperate need of places to gather and think out loud. Forget Fortnite, that 3D commercial behemoth designed to appeal to fans of first-person shooters under the age of 12. I have seen the future, and it lies within the headset.
Or at least, one potential future; VR has seen a lot of stops and starts. In 2014, Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014 led to the misleading prediction that the company would lead the charge of a VR revolution. Instead, the cartoony Facebook Spaces fizzled out last year, as did Oculus Rooms. However, social communities on VR platforms like Altspace, VRchat, and BigScreen continue to develop, eager for new content, and the medium shows real signs of growth. In fact, the Oculus Quest surpassed $100 million in sales over the past year, making Oculus the biggest revenue driver for Facebook outside of ads.
Prior to quarantine, my experience with VR was limited to discrete encounters at film festivals — strap on the visor, crane through a brief 360 video, return to real life with crossed eyes and a sore neck. However, despite the media’s tendency to dismiss VR as a phenomenon that will never catch on (including a glib dismissal last month in the New York Times), the technology now provides much more than interactive movies and games: It’s the ultimate panacea to sheltering in place, where people can gather without inhaling the same air in immersive spaces. Filmmakers and musicians have begun using it to explore ways to share their work, and the results could even address the industry’s current exhibition and creative challenges.
That said, the barriers to entry are real. On a whim, I nabbed an Oculus Go on Amazon for $250, far cheaper than flashier offerings of the Oculus Quest ($400, if you can get one; they sell out fast) or the HTC Vive (systems available for $700 and up). As it turns out, there’s a reason the Oculus Go is a steal: It offers limited movement and access. On the evening when I first created an avatar in Altspace, I dropped into a house party filled with jovial people who looked like bobble heads and robots, some of whom prodded me for my outdated setup: I had only one arm, couldn’t move my hands, and lacked the ability to fly with much dexterity. As revelers gathered around me and giggled, I felt like I’d fallen into the Philip K. Dick version of a college hazing ritual.
Thankfully, that didn’t last. In time, I found myself welcomed by the Altspace community, where people from around the world gather in countless virtual environments. While Second Life provided the first wave of virtual communities decades ago, it favored users cosplaying as mystical creatures, and seemed designed to develop on a whole new environment from scratch rather than building on our existing one. In Altspace, you pretty much look like yourself (albeit rendered in blocky 3D graphics) and the platform emphasizes exploring and interactivity, building on our existing relationship to the real world.
Finding my footing, I found no shortage of substantial activities to explore. I dropped by open mics, comedy routines, even group therapy sessions, all run by thoughtful people keen on crafting mature experiences. (Altspace doesn’t share user numbers, but a rep at the company told me the platform hosts hundreds of events per week.) I also found organic ways to make new friends: One day, I drifted into a beautiful user-generated world surrounded by majestic waterfalls and a starry night, where I encountered two Altspace avatars standing on a hill in the midst of a complex discussion about race. A few nights later, I attended a lively musical performance by “The Late Late Show With James Corden” bandleader Reggie Watts, who started performing in Altspace back in 2016.
And then there was British cinematographer George Burt, whom I met one evening watching “The Man With the Golden Arm” on a large VR screen of his own making. (In Altspace, users can create their own public virtual events that anyone can drop into; you can also hire moderators to boot out the trolls.) Burt is keen to develop a VR film festival, and hoped to plan a virtual premiere for “Black Ops” (known as “The Ascent” in the UK), a recent genre effort he shot directed by Tom Paton. That screening will happen June 12, and as a result of our connection, my avatar will even drop by to moderate the post-screening Q&A.
Altspace can’t exactly replicate the moviegoing experience; the technology doesn’t support high-resolution video. The app making strides on that front is BigScreenVR, where users can congregate in virtual movie theaters with strangers and friends alike. But who wants to do that with heated hard drives strapped to their foreheads?
As it turns out, the audience is there — it just doesn’t look like one you might find at real-world events. In April, after the cancelation of San Francisco’s DocFest, the filmmaker behind programming entry “Ask No Questions” organized a BigScreen screening to benefit the city’s shuttered Roxy Theatre. Since the technology can sustain only a dozen people at a time, director Jason Loftus held four screenings back-to-back with Q&As after each one. (Watch clips from the event here.) While Altspace could technically handle more people, “the most important thing for us was the quality of the experience,” Lofty said. “We wanted to replicate as much as possible that feeling of being in a theater.”
Lofty knows the technology has yet to cross over to a general festival crowd. “There isn’t a built-in audience for this,” he said. “Because it’s a new experiment in the film space, a lot of people don’t have the headsets. So you’re out there in the Discord chat rooms saying, ‘Hey guys, come to my movie!’” However, he added, it beat the alternative that many festivals have offered as they try out online solutions: “It was reminiscent of being at a festival screening. It gave us that kind of feeling. You don’t get that when you throw the film up online and have a Zoom chat.”
“Ask No Questions” was hardly the first film event in VR; two years ago, Altspace partnered with SF Indie on the CyberiaVR Film Festival. However, struggling film organizations could benefit from programming work to serve the VR user base, especially as it continues to grow: Oculus Quest sold out within the first two weeks of the pandemic.
Altspace faces similar challenges. “Our team is overwhelmed,” Altspace programmer Katie Kelly told me. “There’s this huge demand from classes, entertainers, and regular people who have headsets and want to interact. We’re just trying to have an app that can work with all that.” The platform, which briefly went under in 2017 before Microsoft acquired it several months later, doesn’t release figures on its user base, but Kelly said the retention rate keeps growing.
Meanwhile, VR events that were supposed to take place in the real world are thriving with virtual solutions. While 500 people registered for the French convention Laval Virtual, a physical event scheduled (and canceled) in April, some 11,000 attended the virtual conference. The Cannes market will unveil its Cannes XR edition June 24-26 in partnership with the Museum of Other Realities, an indie social VR platform. This opens participation for VR community members who might not have the resources to travel to the French Riviera. “I think we’ve figured out how to use this space in professional conditions and showcase new work,” Cannes XR head Elie Levasseur said. “It’s really exciting. I feel like we have taken the first step toward a whole new kind of event.”
Levasseur first noticed an uptick in VR projects while running Cross Video Days, a Paris-based cross-media market for interactive content. In 2016, the event showcased a handful of VR projects; by 2017, VR consumed 70 percent of the market. “Producers are trying to create more immersive stories, and VR is the perfect medium to do that,” he said.
He acknowledged that industry adoption had been gradual. “I think there is obviously a lot to do to make VR mass market, but my point of view is that everybody who actually works in this industry has this goal,” he said. “If Google, Facebook, Samsung, Sony, and others are putting billions of dollars into these technologies, it’s because they want to achieve a mass market for VR.”
The headsets may turn people off, Levasseur acknowledged, but the technology will keep taking on new forms. “I don’t know if we’ll keep the same device to access VR, but at some point we’ll have the right technologies to present these stories to a larger audiences,” he said.
After the Tribeca Film Festival postponed in April, film and immersive programmer Loren Hammonds worked with Oculus to make the selected projects available to all Oculus users via the Oculus TV app. In a traditional year, Hammonds said, VR installations couldn’t service more than 4,000 people across the 10-day event. This year, the festival selections received 43,000 views in VR.
“This was a huge global expansion,” he said. “My background is in film, but one of the reasons I jumped headfirst into the immersive world is that I could see it being built, and to be on the ground as it’s being developed is very exciting. Each year is a leap forward.”
While the Steven Spielberg movie “Ready Player One” predicted a VR dystopia where people used headsets to escape reality, some of the best VR creators are presenting new ways of seeing the real world. “Notes on Blindness,” a breakout from Sundance’s New Frontiers section, explores the experiences of writer John M. Hull losing his vision, and this year’s “Traveling While Black,” an absorbing work from Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams, careens through decades of African American experiences by immersing viewers in Ben’s Chili Bowl, the restaurant that provided a safe haven for African Americans throughout the Civil Rights movement. “The Line,” which premiered at Venice last fall, presents an interactive love story that takes place entirely within a model train set. And “The March,” a joint production by Time magazine and Viola Davis, takes place at the center of the 1963 March on Washington.
“The creators that are really innovating and working consistently in the medium are committed to making it happen,” Hammonds said. “They’re figuring out ways to fund and create their projects in a totally different ecosystem than what the film industry is doing. It takes a different mindset to make some of this immersive work.”
More than 25 years after Rose Troché’s “Go Fish” become a breakthrough in lesbian cinema, Hammonds had particular praise for her 2020 VR piece “We Live Here,” which has yet to premiere and follows a homeless woman living in a tent city in Los Angeles from her perspective. “It’s really poetic and lyrical,” he said. “This was something that really took my breath away.”
Hammonds also sees the communal potential in VR. “This pandemic has people starved for connection,” he said, noting that Facebook will launch VR social platform Oculus Connect this fall. “As programmers, we really have a responsibility to be evangelists and educate people about this medium to make it feel more comfortable. It’s not as intimidating as it might seem.”
One quiet Saturday night a few pandemic weeks ago, I dropped into a Reggie Watts performance in Altspace and had a blast. Watts, whose boundary-pushing performances blend standup, beatboxing, and jazzy, discursive music layered across a dense set of tracks in real time, has exactly the kind of category-busting persona that makes sense for the VR space. As I watched his cartoon avatar flit about the stage, addressing multiple rooms at once while the audience gathered around him, I was swept up in the euphoria of experiencing spur-of-the-moment creativity in a crowded room. Watts used the technology to his advantage, leading us out to a virtual balcony for his climatic performance, where he invited the audience to set off fireworks that exploded into large images of his face across the sky. It was a dazzling, surreal, and otherworldly feat.
“I’ve been into VR since the ’80s,” Watts told me by phone a few days later. “It’s like the bedroom turning into the jungle in ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ or the cabinet in ‘Chronicles of Narnia,’ this childhood dream of going through a magical portal.” Watts, who played a fictionalized version of himself as an augmented reality obsessive in the 2015 film “Creative Control,” first saw the performative potential of VR while attending the Palm Springs comedy festival Jashfest five years ago. Altspace set up booths for comedians to do VR sets, and Watts was smitten. A year later, he joined “Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland for a boisterous Altspace comedy set, and was hooked.
“I still have to figure out the perfect system, but it’s just trial and error,” said Watts. He ticked off some of the shortcomings of the format — limited battery life, the weight of the headset, visors that don’t flip up, forcing users to fiddle uncomfortably between two realities — but he remains optimistic. “Within the next five years, I think we’ll have a headset and a system that’s easy to use,” he said. “I don’t think VR is going anywhere.”
It’s a proclamation that resembles one made by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey six years ago, when he announced that VR was “going to change the world.” The goateed eccentric, who supposedly inspired the rascally entrepreneur played by Haley Joel Osment on “Silicon Valley,” has spent his entire adult life talking up the medium. After Luckey sold Oculus to Facebook, he played a key role in helping Sundance’s New Frontiers take off in 2015, when he drove a truck full of motion-capture equipment out to Utah; later, he faced a deluge of negative press with the revelation that he privately funded an anti-Hillary Clinton group. The backlash eventually led to his departure from Facebook in 2017. (Luckey identifies as a libertarian and said he voted for Gary Johnson.)
Now 27, Luckey has found a new track by running Anduril Industries, a company that develops AR technologies for the military. Nobody has spent more hours hyping VR; the technology made him a multimillionaire at an age when most people graduate college. On Zoom, he’s an exuberant and engaging conversationalist eager to talk through the experiences of a VR novice.
Luckey speaks VR lingo on autopilot, ticking off terms like “IPD adjustment” and “motion tracking” like he’s ordering pizza. He was amused by my impulsive decision to pick up a bottom-of-the-barrel headset and face the mockery of diehard VR users. “For my generation, you’re the guy who bought the Super Nintendo on clearance at Toys ‘R’ Us because the N64 is out now and everyone else is playing ‘Super Mario’ and ‘Pilot Wings,’” he said with a grin.
He remains bullish on the future of VR. “I think it’s going to replace huge chunks, if not all, of our daily lives,” he said. “But people have to avoid using it as a gimmick to gain attention as a forward-thinking person.” He stressed the need to create VR experiences that don’t mirror their real-world equivalents. He adores playing “Echo Arena,” a VR sport built around zero gravity, and regularly attends a weekly anime club in BigScreen.
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“I think that things like BigScreen can replace some elements of real theaters while they’re gone, but they’re also going to give you things that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “I regularly use virtual reality movie theater-type of experiences because there’s nothing else like that in the real world. But I was doing that when movie theaters were open, too, discussing things in real-time, shouting and screaming, which you can’t do in a movie theater because you don’t know if everyone is on board. I think it’s going to be interesting when VR is good enough that it can simulate almost all the aspects of going to a real movie theater. I would be more worried about that killing movie theaters than coronavirus.”
He quoted Morpheus in “The Matrix,” a movie that VR diehards adore: “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” Luckey said that logic also applied to VR. “People have to get exposure in some way that isn’t just a conversation,” he said. “And even then, not everyone who tries it is going to love it.”
Ultimately, however, he sees the greatest potential in the growth of experiential tech. “At least we know it’s possible and understand the physical limits,” he said. “Within 10 years, I think we’ll be able to stimulate our visual and auditory systems in a way that’s nearly indistinguishable from reality.”
It’s the kind of assertion that might give some people chills — but coming at time when we’re all stuck inside, it points to a potential solution. As someone missing out on Cannes for the first time in 13 years, I’m keen on making my way to the virtual gatherings hosted by Cannes XR this month, perhaps even sipping some digital rosé while watching a virtual Mediterranean sunset. To do that, however, I’ll need an upgrade: The Cannes XR events don’t support the limited processing power of the Oculus Go. Over the course of the next week, I plan to get acquainted with my new Oculus Quest. Consider me among the converted.