VR: Catching Up to the Dream in its Various Forms

Where to go next?
Audience members watched “The Hidden,” a 15-minute virtual reality drama about an ICE raid, at the Mulford Barn last week. Mark Segal

This year the Hamptons International Film Festival added virtual reality to its programming mix with the presentation of “The Hidden,” a 15-minute VR political thriller on view each day at the Mulford Farm in East Hampton, and “A New (Virtual) Reality,” Sunday’s Winick Talk at Rowdy Hall, which brought together four creators working in different areas of the new media landscape to discuss its present and future.

One takeaway from the panel discussion was that VR takes various forms. In order to experience the panelists Annie Lukowski and BJ Schwartz’s “The Hidden,” participants don headsets and sit on swiveling stools for a 360-degree experience of the drama of an ICE raid. The setup is similar to that for Laurie Anderson’s VR installations at Guild Hall earlier this year.

“You are there, you put a headset on and you are literally in a backyard and you can look anywhere you want,” said Mr. Schwartz. “But you can’t affect the story.” Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Lukowski come out of a filmmaking background.

“We want to tell stories,” she said. “We believe you can give audiences choices, such as where to look, but still tell a story. It means you have to do it differently. And we’ve seen audiences increasingly embracing new mediums and new storytelling techniques.” 

They shot “The Hidden” with a Nokia OZO, which looks like a soccer ball and has eight lenses and microphones. “The real artistry is not in the shooting but in the postproduction,” Ms. Lukowski said, “getting all of those images and turning them into one.”

Bruce Vaughn is the C.E.O. of Dreamscape Immersive, whose location-based VR installation “Alien Zoo” is a destination, not unlike a theme park adventure. It, too, involves “gearing up,” in this case with a light backpack, sensor-equipped gloves, shoe coverings, and headset. It takes place in a specific space with vibrating floors and wind and smells.

“You’ve got to play to the limitations of the medium,” Mr. Vaughn said. “We embrace what we call the gear-up. We have a departure lounge, departure times; we’re like a travel agency that takes you beyond time, space, and dimension. It isn’t just the 10 minutes you’re in the room, it’s the whole experience.”

“You just watch people walking around reaching for things that aren’t there,” he added. “There is something powerful about this medium. If you can see it, touch it, feel it, then it’s real — but it isn’t. You can think you’re about to fall off a precipice, even though you’re on a flat floor.”

JT Della Femina is the director of digital and social marketing at Eko, which is neither VR nor immersive but is participatory. “You watch a narrative on a tablet or a mobile phone, and as you go through the story you are presented with choices, each of which dictates what comes next. You personalize your own experience.”

What links all the platforms is their transformation of the passive viewer into an active participant. While there is no question that each offers an enhanced experience, the panelists agreed that, as Mr. Della Femina put it, “The technology hasn’t really matched up with the dream just yet.”

“VR has tried to stand up several times and it hasn’t,” Mr. Vaughn said, “it was just too cumbersome.” At the same time, the Oculus standalone VR headset, which retails for around $200, has brought the VR experience within reach — theoretically — of the consumer.

However, as Ms. Lukowski said, “We need more content. There are maybe 20 hours of good VR content in existence right how, and people aren’t going to invest in VR equipment for 20 hours of content. We need more filmmakers, serious curators, serious critics making sure the level and expertise is high.”

“For it to cross over to a wide audience will take some time,” said Mr. Della Femina. “Think of how long it took to go from VHS to streaming.” In addition to content, access was also discussed.

The “Alien Zoo” theater was located in Westfield Century City, a shopping mall in Los Angeles. “Location-based VR is by appointment, and when we did a pop-up in Century City, people signed up at times the mall was quiet. They wound up getting a lot of foot traffic at the mall at off-peak hours, and people stayed and bought things, so the mall was happy.” 

Mr. Vaughn said his company was looking at VR video conferencing, and Ms. Lukowski imagined a future in which a university professor would give a class to millions of people across the globe. “It’s going to be a revolution,” she said. 

The discussion was moderated by Opal H. Bennett, a film curator on the programming teams for the Aspen ShortsFest and the Nantucket and Tribeca Film Festivals and a juror at festivals throughout the country.

Annie Lukowski and BJ Schwartz, the filmmakers of “The Hidden,” at the Mulford FarmMark Segal