So, let's be honest. No one has known for sure if VR was going to be an art form, a new kind of storytelling - or a gimmick. The true believers promised a 'virtual' future for film.But the naysayers would point to Google Glass or 3d TV - and look down their nose and roll their eyes.
Well - the Tribeca Film Festival has been a longtime proponent of Virtual Reality storytelling. This year - VR turned the corner and became very, very real.
The VR Playground at the Tribeca Hub (50 Varick St) is a treasure trove of experiences, environments, and experiments. But the gimmickry has been replaced with powerful and emotional stories - told with techniques that are - for the first time - mature enough to be ready for the mainstream public.
My most surprising experience was the story "Draw Me Close" by Canadian playwright and filmmaker Jordan Tannahill. Tannahill's story is deeply personal, as he takes a single audience member back to his five-year-old childhood.
I put on VR goggles, headphones, and Vive hand sensors, took off my shoes, and once the story began - a black and white drawing of the outside of the house appeared, and I was invited to turn the handle on the front door. I reached out, and a drawing of my hand appeared in m field of view, the handle of the door was real and opened, and I walked in. It was immediately engaging - thanks in large part to Teva Harrison sparse and evocative drawings. The living room carpet was plush and shaggy - reminding me of the shag carpeting of an earlier time.
At first, I thought I knew what I was experiencing. A virtual room with some 'real' elements like the door handle and the carpet. The haptic feedback was engaging. Then, Jordan's mother enters the room - and she touches me. Her hand on my shoulder. Her voice - real and human. Jordan's mother is played by a human actress. Her movements are translated into the virtual world using real-time motion capture. So I was interacting with a pen and ink drawing of Jordan's mom. A virtual character in the physical world. Mind officially blown. Being touched by a cartoon - hearing her voice, merged the real with the virtual, unlike any experience I've ever had.
Draw Me Close is a co-production of The National Film Board of Canada and The National Theatre's Immersive Storytelling Studio.
The Tribeca Virtual Arcade is open through April 29th at the Tribeca Film Festival Hub, 50 Varick Street. Timed tickets to the VR space are $40 and can be purchased online. https://tribecafilm.com