Virtual Reality is opening up new storytelling genres and filmmakers are finding themselves with new tools, techniques, and complexity in the brave new world of immersive media.
In discussions of VR and storytelling, understanding and empathy are two words that are often the center of the conversation. That's because VR flips on its head the "willing suspension of disbelief." Here's the first time I encountered this. I was at the Stanford VR lab of Prof Jeremy Bailenson, wearing a headset, and being asked to walk on a (virtual) path. As I walked, the floor on either side of the path dropped away, and I was now walking across a narrow path with a deadly cliff on either side. I knew the floor was real - and the cavern below was a digital fiction. It hardly mattered. I became unsure of my footing, lost balance, and genuinely feared that I might fall. I didn't have to suspend disbelief, but rather need to work hard to keep my rational mind from fully adopting the digital reality that it was presented with. That day - five years ago - it was clear to me that filmmakers were about to have a new kind of power in their hands.
VR headset demo'd by Edwin Rogers of VR VIDEO (photo: Steven Rosenbaum)
It's as simple as this. Virtual Reality creates a sense of "presence," so even if your conscious = brain knows what you are observing is virtual, your emotional instincts and responsive brain absorbs the VR fiction a real experience and memory. Thinking back to the bridge and that cavern below, it's still frightening to this day.
The way Peter worded it felt like the line at the beginning of a Sci-Fi movie, where the resident scientist explains a concept that will become important later on in the film. You know that moment. It's always a telegraphed concept. Implanting false memories is hardly a new Sci-Fi trope. But here's a technology that can really do it.
Chris Milk and his VRSE studio are at the forefront of exploring and inventing in VR. Milk says VR could actually change human consciousness. In 2015 I watched Milk give this brilliant TED Talk in Vancouver. He showed the gathering a number of extraordinary early VR experiences including The Wilderness Downtown, a music video for the band Arcade Fire.
Said Milk: Unfortunately, talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture. It's difficult because it's a very experiential medium. You feel your way inside of it. It's a machine, but inside of it, it feels like real life, it feels like truth. And you feel present in the world that you're inside and you feel present with the people that you're inside of it with.
"I think we just start to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way. I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world. It's a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human."
What Milk clearly understands is the VR is powerful, and powerful in ways not yet fully conceived. "Think about how the technology scales, to the point where you're eventually incorporating other senses at further and further levels of fidelity," Milk told the Guardian. "What you're talking about at some point is more than a medium, but is fundamentally an alternative level of human consciousness."
And back at Stanford - Bateson agrees. "Am I terrified of the world where anyone can create really horrible experiences? Yes, it does worry me," he said told the Guardian October. "I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex. How does that change the way humans interact, function as a society?"