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These Uncomfortably Exciting Times

A VR viewer at the 2016 edition of Sundance New Frontier (Photo by Kelsey Doyle)

I’m an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I approach and pull away from objects. […] I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, maneuvering in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you. — Dziga Vertov, 1929

A World Unknown

The birth of a new medium is necessarily awkward.

There are rules that are assumed, flag poles secured in quicksand, that are gone almost as soon as they appear. There were once articles that passionately argued how editing in virtual reality was impossible — that it shouldn’t be done. This statement has since been proven untrue. Adobe Premiere has even rolled out an update that includes not only support for VR footage but also the beginnings of a VR editing toolset. And at the Adobe MAX conference this year, an R&D group demoed a tool for editing VR content while wearing a head-mounted display. “Impossible” became “Click to update” in a matter of a few years.

Then we have the anxiety of choice. What do you do when everything seems possible? Should we rely on old habits? Should we focus on big brands? Big studios? Are the great creators the directors who have proven they can make something that can attract a big audience and win prestigious awards? Are they the developers who made those video or computer games we once loved? Cyan Worlds, led by Rand and Robyn Miller, made the hit computer game Myst back in the late ’80s using something called HyperCard, which could be described as a kind of interactive, programmable slideshow. Recently, they’ve released their first VR project, Obduction. While they admit they have a great deal to learn and implement, it’s clear that Obduction hits quite a few successful VR craft chords.

But then you also have something like the console game Fallout 4, which is currently being ported into VR. In this videogame, you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world where it’s you against zombies, mechanical monsters and strange creatures as you roam and collect all sorts of scraps, tools and weapons to help you fight for survival. Motherboard reviewer Leif Johnson tried the demo at E3 and had this to say:

There’s always a sense when you’re playing with a controller or a mouse and keyboard that you’re playing a game; that you’re popping off pixels toward masses of other pixels. But taking the effort to raise my right hand and aim a weapon at the head of someone who doesn’t even see me? That kind of deliberateness is something else entirely…I pulled the trigger anyway. Boom. Down he went, sprawled over the cracked cement. The dog looked up at me, panting. I shuddered as the demo went dark…and it’s that image that haunted me briefly last night in my sleep. I’ve killed hundreds or thousands of fake people in Fallout 4 since it went live last November, and now it’s this guy who’ll remain stuck in my brain.

Is this the reality we’re asking for?

He’s Not My Cousin

Probably the worst thing we could do is prematurely evaluate the success of this new medium by comparing it with other mediums, and this has especially been the case with VR being evaluated as an offshoot of filmmaking. It’s as if to say, “VR is filmmaking because it uses a rig with cameras on it.” Which is a bit like saying, “Film is theater because there are actors in it.” While it’s true that both mediums overlap in some ways, they ultimately differ in a great deal more.

“How to be a storyteller in VR?” also applies here, because that question completely skirts the fact that telling anything in a medium that’s meant to convince someone they have experiential freedom is very hard to do, unless you literally just tell it through narration or force someone to look in a direction, which is not really the point of this whole virtual reality thing. There are other mediums that will prove a lot less frustrating for a creator with a story that needs to be told.

A composer once told me about the moment in history when choreographers decided that ballet would start to tackle narrative. A phrase was evoked from the most unfortunate first attempts at this: He’s not my cousin. Themes of love, betrayal, happiness — all are gesturally possible, but to try and communicate that specific kind of cousin-like relationship through dance? Perhaps there could be some kind of estranged series of bodily contortions that could indicate how someone is not quite an aunt and not quite a sister, but this might be a bit of a stretch to uniformly interpret. And, sure, you could have the words appear above the stage, or have them sung by a boy’s choir, or the title of the entire performance could be “He’s Not My Cousin.” But perhaps ballet would simply recognize more important artistic goals, ones more conducive to its particular strengths.

Which is to say, I feel that VR will succeed not because we held fast to standards, but because we abandoned those standards altogether. Standards can provide useful framework. But it can be equally useful, if not more so, to ask why these standards exist in the first place and what their true function is.

Editing

In order to get closer to understanding editing in virtual reality, we need to think about what editing itself tries to accomplish. When Walter Murch wrote his influential book, In the Blink of an Eye, in 1995, he mentioned how “Editing  —  even on a more ‘normal’ film  —  is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path.”

In film, this is accomplished by going frame to frame, but in VR, the frame is where the visitor engages. There are worlds of frames that need to be considered. If we can make good predictions and craft with potential engagement in mind, then we can pull someone through a full experience in a way that isn’t jarring or strange, but personally gratifying. We allow the visitor to move through time and space.

As Murch states: “A good film that is well edited seems like an exciting extension and elaboration of the audience’s own feelings and thoughts, and they will therefore give themselves to it, as it gives itself to them.”

As we see now, editing isn’t only possible in VR but a very powerful tool for enabling connection.

Storytelling

I’m simplifying here as there is a lot of nuance in how this truly works, but storytelling generally involves someone — the teller — filtering an experience and then trying to communicate that experience to someone else. That transfer will then evoke a translation in the mind of the person receiving the message. Most mediums do this. This is, for filmmaking, Vertov’s camera — the disembodied mechanical eye. To show you the world the way he sees the world. To deliver the world to you anew.

But the medium of virtual reality seems to be far less about how the teller creates meaning from an experience and more about understanding how the receiver will create an internal narrative, which requires the creator to abandon a great deal of traditional control over the process of creating meaning. We’re asking the visitor to discover a story by virtue of her own experience. And there is a vast amount of possible permutations of this. Your story will always be different than someone else’s. 

What I have to be as a VR creator is a story enabler, not the story dictator. Allow stories to unfold in a space. Start to rely more on feeling and atmosphere than on conventional narrative. Let it be a bit more like music. Like architecture. Like dance.

The Millers’s sequel to Myst is a game called Riven. The last scene has you falling through a crack in the world and into a massive star field called the Fissure. As you descend through these stars, the crack in the earth hovering above you, the main character Atrus speaks these words: “And now, I am at rest, understanding that in books, and ages and life… the ending can never truly be written.”

While not being able to tell the story you wish to tell is a daunting prospect, in VR, providing only one premeditated path risks stripping the viewer of the capacity to discover for themselves the remarkable and the meaningful. Within the chaos of possibility, there is always an abundance of great beauty to be realized. If a creator can guide someone to that beauty, she is able to tap into something core to life and to our very being.

Being There

My craft as a VR creator is the worlds I take you to, how I take you there, what will be there when you arrive, the vessel you inhabit — who you will become in these worlds — and the perceptual filters I provide you to experience it all. VR is a medium that harnesses “being there” — how we perceive and experience the world physically and psychologically -— in order to better understand and challenge our relationship to this thing we call reality. 

And we’ve found that literally going to a place isn’t what makes the act of “being there” special. Existence in itself is not interesting. Just going somewhere else isn’t enough.  We validate our existence through experiences, which become stories, memories, dreams. They lead to great and wonderful things, validation and purpose. 

VR isn’t a disembodied medium at all. It’s quite the opposite, because its whole end-goal is embodiment.

This is also why a lot of what used to hold true about film, or theater, or game design, doesn’t work the same way in VR. Editing, acting, camera moves, secondary character narration — all of this serves as a means of connecting you to an experience from which you’re separated rather than connecting you to an experience you’re in. Consider music: no visuals, no reference points. You listen and your mind is taken somewhere else. It lifts you, it lets you fall. It feeds the internal narrative, which is at the very core of our emotions.

It also appears, as Fallout 4’s “holding a gun to a zombie head” would suggest, that VR creators are faced with an important responsibility that wasn’t required in disembodied mediums. Similarly, we can look to another type of responsibility as revealed when creator Davey Wreden was developing his game, The Stanley Parable, where his “hilarious” narration in an early test of the game was met with the following comment from testers:

No one wants to be locked in a room and listen to your shitty jokes.

Faking reality has upped stakes. As a general rule.  

The New New Frontier

When you walk into Sundance’s New Frontier VR space this year — dubbed the VR Palace — you’ll be met with a well-curated group of experiences from some returning creators in the field as well as pieces from equally talented newcomers. You’ll experience everything from cartoon alien spaceships (Eric Darnell’s ASTEROIDS!), to kittens (Tyler Hurd’s Chocolate), to robot obsolescence (Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël’s Miyubi), hate crime (Rose Troche and Bruce Allan’s If Not Love), a “pyroclastic explosion inspired by Zabriskie Point” (The Sky is a Gap, Rachel Rossin). Jeff Goldblum (Miyubi, Felix & Paul) and Geena Davis (Dear Angelica, Oculus Story Studio) will be reunited and in the same room at long last — albeit in their respective virtual worlds. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral and Danfung Dennis’s Melting Ice are contributions to this year’s New Climate section of Sundance, aimed at environmental change and conservation. Six minutes, 40 minutes, installations, social experiments, engagement with and without a remote control(s), attempts at interactivity both physical and virtual. It’s VR creation firing on all cylinders. Engineers, camera makers, game designers, tech companies, artists, curators, visitors from all walks of life reaching to all points on the horizon, eyes searching madly — still with the question “what the heck is this thing?” Perhaps the answer isn’t meant to be a literal one. VR by its nature is elusive, constantly evolving and therefore difficult to define. 

The best thing any of us can do is try everything that’s available. All of it. Take our experiences and perceptual abilities, move into headsets and sensor-equipped rooms. Allow ourselves to be taken to places we’ve never been before, interact, and feel how the mechanical eye reattaches — witness VR epically struggling to make sense of itself, fighting against its boxes, very much alive.

A colleague of mine, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, is a principal scientist working on artificial intelligence at Google. He had this to say about the current state of AI, which I think also describes the current state of VR better than anything else I’ve heard: “We live in uncomfortably exciting times.” 

Perhaps in a few years, 50 years, 100 years from now, the VR creators of the future will look back to all of the oddity, fragmentation, anxiety, philosophizing, the uncertainty and constant rewiring, the many failures that were as beautiful and insightful as the successes, and find it all a truly remarkable journey to behold, envious of this medium’s embraced state of unrest, wishing they could have been there to experience it at its beginnings.

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