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‘The Future of VR Is Social’: How a Virtual Reality Showcase in Venice Points to What’s Next for the Medium

With 34 user-generated VR worlds curated by this year's festival, the medium's direction has never been more clear.

Venice VR expanded

Venice’s 2021 VR space

There is much to be gleaned about the future of creativity from the work being made in virtual reality: From Sundance to Burning Man, the past year has offered many examples of successful large-scale virtual events in 3D. However, among the major fall film festivals, only Venice’s VR Expanded section has made room for the emerging medium, and only the most recent edition showcased a key aspect of VR’s expansion that is poised to grow prominent: the social side.

In addition to the 24 projects in Competition and a handful of others, programmers Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac curated a selection of 34 user-generated worlds created in social platform VRChat. The spaces ranged from sci-fi and adventure quest themes to full-on artworks and interactive music videos, many of which were built on massive scales inconceivable for any physical festival space.

Throughout the festival, the programmers hosted special events and “world hops” to tour spaces they discovered while exploring the platform themselves over the past year. Last year, 140,000 people attended the Venice VR selection; this year’s numbers were not yet available, but as the curated worlds are publicly available on VR chat, full attendance is harder to measure.

One thing is clear, though: To really see the full extent of VR world-building, you have to roam around. “We spent a lot of time wandering,” Rosenthal said. Reilhac added that the experience helped them understand the medium’s interactive potential. “The future of VR is social,” he said. “These people know exactly where it’s going.”

This programming process differed greatly from any traditional curatorial approach: The programmers were joined by others in the VR community, in avatar form, as they explored expansive creations that weren’t officially submitted for any kind of showcase. All the worlds were made publicly available by their creators.

“I find that the explosion of creativity that is happening the social platforms is actually so mind-blowing that it challenges the mode of content production today,” Rosenthal said. “These were people who do not consider themselves artists at all building these worlds in record time. The level of sophistication that they manage to produce in those worlds is on par with the most sophisticated works produced by studios.”

With Facebook reportedly committing almost 10,000 employees to its Reality Division — nearly a third of its workforce — just as the company’s Oculus 2 headset hits record sales numbers, there’s no doubting that major media companies see potential in turning VR into the next phase of online society. But the worlds selected by Venice’s VR team show how many users are already at that point.

Worlds on display this year included Mycelia, an environment comprised of fungi that react to audio produced by human avatars in the space, and “Braindance,” a space designed to compliment guided meditation with live analog synths and visual aids. Prolific VR world creator Jen Davis-Wilson (who goes by the moniker “Fionna” in VRchat) led her own tour during the festival. She has been using the platform to develop an upcoming game produced by Oculus.

Rosenthal noted that because VRchat was built on the software Unity, it allowed creators to experiment with the software’s potential. “It’s a gateway drug to Unity,” Rosenthal said. “It takes ages to learn, but you can actually produce something quite fast. They’re using the platform as a kind of prototype for building things.” Reilhac added that “the platform is a de facto incubator for talent that will lead to commercial success very soon.”

However, he added that the communal development within VR appeared to supersede any kind of profit motive. “When you dig a little bit and start to meet the makers of these worlds, it’s people doing it for the fun of it,” he said. “For the most part, there’s no concern over monetization and business models.”

Many of these social experiences have attracted gamers, whose investment in interactive media has made them more open to the potential of VR than traditional consumers of film and television. “We’re finding out there’s a continuum between games and stories,” Reilhac said.

The range of creativity on display was informed, at least in part, by the pandemic. “We’ve seen a huge explosion over the past 18 months with people using platforms to create and play in new environments,” Rosenthal said. “We found it amazing that there would be such a high level of intricacies and complexities of content in worlds built so quickly. We see ourselves as a window into what is happening into the world of immersive.”

In many cases, the programmers found that world-builders were using the platform to develop skills they would eventually take to market. “A lot of the makers who are serious about making things are experimenting on the platform to figure out what the future models are — whether it’s NFTs or selling avatars and other assets,” Rosenthal said.

Of course, VR Expanded is a world apart from the conversations that took place on the Lido this year about the films in competition for the Golden Lion. But the festival’s VR programmers said they were hoping that the turnout for this year’s edition would help make the case for potentially screening selections from the lineup to users in VR. “We’re hoping to open up a conversation about that,” Rosenthal said. “We see the potential to offer films to a larger audience alongside these creators.”

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