Among the highlights of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was the chance to experience the best new VR works at the festival’s Virtual Arcade, where you often feel like you’ve stepped into the world of Ready Player One.
Absorbingly narrated by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, My Africa takes its VR participants on a journey to the community run Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Kenya. There are some thrilling moments as we see herds of animals speedily migrate at close proximity and witness a lioness catch her meal. We also intimately observe community members as they go about their daily tasks to help save local wildlife and in doing so, the film suggests, they are helping to to secure their own futures.
At one point we are taken on a helicopter ride accompanying the newest arrival to the sanctuary, baby elephant Dudu. The feeling of immense height and depth is particularly impressive, for instance a deep well is dug for water, which as we look down helps emphasise the environmental message of water becoming less accessible. One particularly nice touch is the mixed-reality companion piece including near photo-realistic CG visuals which allows us to take care of the newly arrived Dudu, keeping the elephants ears wet with a sponge, taking a blood sample and feeding the young animal. My Africa uses the immersive strengths of VR, including use of a floor cover that feels like sand, to make a persuasive case for the importance of community led initiatives such as the Reteti sanctuary.
With Queerskins a poignant and moving VR work sits at the centre of an art installation. As participants we are placed in the back seat of a car traveling through Missouri in the early 1990s. In the front seats of the car are the conservative and devoutly Catholic parents of Sebastian, a young gay man who has died of AIDS.
As they discuss their disapproval of their late son, we are encouraged to get to know Sebastian by looking through a box of his belongings, the contents of which change as the journey continues. Having been given two controlling devices which allow us to move our hands within the VR world to “touch” the items. Being given the choice to select different artefacts from Sebastian’s life enhances the emotionally charged experience which continues after watching the film where participants are encouraged to look around a space dressed as Sebastian’s bedroom that contains many of the items seen in the film.
The compelling VR experience forms part of a larger interactive online project www.queerskins.com
Into The Now
Into The Now offers a face to face encounter with sharks along alongside director and wildlife photographer Michael Muller. We learn that Muller’s lifelong fear of sharks took him underwater to face the creatures head on. There is some stunning underwater and aerial photography throughout, especially the stereoscopic footage of shoals of fish swimming past in massive ball shapes.
During the experience, the focus shifts to Muller sharing his own story of finding peace of mind and the ability to live in the moment through facing his subaqueous fears.
The most absorbing and disorientating of the VR works I sampled was Dinner Party, where participants are placed on chair at dining room table set for dinner guests. What initially seems likely to be a fly-on-the-wall look a 1960’s intimate social gathering takes an unexpected turn with flashbacks and multiple locations that put the VR participant in the midst of the memories of a UFO abduction.
We are in the shoes of Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple who reported being abducted by extraterrestrials in 1961, as they listen back to the recordings of what they said during a hypnosis session.
Inspired by the 1983 movie War Games starring Matthew Broderick, #WarGames VR makes little use of the immersive potential of medium. The comparatively passive experience allows the viewer to move their gaze between three characters who are in the midst of some high level hacking. #WarGames is likely to be more compelling in its other form as interactive TV show, available on Steam and Eko.