The revolution is coming. It’s coming for your flat screens and your movie theatres and when it’s done, nothing will be the same. Virtual reality has at long last arrived, with tech that is ungainly, expensive and wondrous. Like all tech innovations, the race to consumer affordability is on, and within five years you can bet that VR will be cheap and ubiquitous. Right now, though, we’re in the supercomputer-that-fills-a-room days (metaphorically—the actual gear is already quite compact). In Toronto, TIFF saw the exciting breakthroughs in the medium and seized the opportunity to let people experience VR firsthand, minus the outlay for an Oculus rig. POP 03 is TIFF’s latest public pop-up installation, a three-day hands-on for people to check out what VR is about. I got my own eyes-on yesterday, and I gotta tell ya, the impact is powerful.
The first two TIFF VR pop-ups took place earlier this summer. The first looked at art and music, the second at documentary. POP 03’s focus is on film and VR, the way that telling a story or conveying an experience changes when you’re totally immersed. The idea of interactivity adds a whole other game-like dimension, though genuinely interactive experiences were the exception. The show presents eighteen different installations. The majority run on the Samsung Gear VR platform, with an Android phone strapped to your face, ensconced in diving goggles. The graphics are sub-par, pixels visible and creating screen-door effects. But the experiences themselves are totally engrossing. A few other platforms are present, including HTC’s Vive and the current VR king of the hill (and Facebook subsidiary) Oculus. Both platforms are much higher end, requiring kitted out PCs in addition to the goggles-and-headphones rigs. The goggles give most of the VR experiences a scuba-diving effect, but you quickly tune out your proscribed field of vision once the experience gets rolling.
And oh those experiences! The scuba-diving impression of the goggles lends itself immediately to sensations of underwater or space exploration. Sankhara conjures imagery straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, putting you in the body of an astronaut piloting a transparent pod through the nebulous heavens. Your hands adjust the throttle and tap at screens (hands entirely outside of your control, mind you) as your ship flies past planets and asteroids, a vast star field in the distance. The soundtrack plays narration from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a melancholic meditation on time and space. As the journey grows perilous, the scene changes to a lakeside, a woman playing with a child on a swing, a fire and a cabin. The figures dissolve into white triangular wisps on the wind, and a man appears, peering into a telescope, before he also dissolves. Turning your head, you see the man and the child taking a sailboat out onto the lake, and then the entire vista dissolves into black triangles, blotting out the scene like geometric birds. In Sonar, your journey is undersea, disappearing in your submersible into a deep watery abyss. Sonar‘s exploration follows a more horrific path, as something in the trench destroys your probe and then your ship. Blasted into the deep water, you’re propelled past dark looming rocks, which transform into creepy reefs of outstretched arms. As the arms get closer and closer to your face, you can’t help but shrink away. The future of unsettling horror VR games is assured.
As cool as they are, the realism of these experiences is middling, doing the best they can with fuzzy graphics. It’s like going back to standard def TV from our HD vantage point. Abstract images are more successful. Minotaur and Nature Abstraction both rely on an animated graphic sensibility, which my eyes accepted more readily than gauzy attempts at photorealism. An NFB collaboration, Minotaur finds you following a white electrical spark through an open, ocean-like space. The sensation is vertiginous and free-floating as the spark moves in the distance past tendrils, evading the clutches of a large dark nemesis, some anti-spark. The scene shifts and you’re racing through a blue-and-white maze of corridors constructed of square line-drawings. That was the most disorienting thing I experienced in the entire show, a roller coaster sensation as you whipsaw around corners and the perspective keeps shifting, going against the grain of how you move your head. That’s the kind of motion that makes people sick, but just like a roller coaster, I let go and loved every second of it. Nature Abstraction draws on Google’s Deepdream to process natural and biological forms into giant sky-scapes. Floating coral reefs fold in on themselves like the planes of a kaleidoscope. Intricate oblong buildings hang suspended in the sky as you drift above them, fighting off the vertigo. Clouds melt across the sky like oozing blobs of oil paint. It’s a purely psychedelic experience, one that could make many drugs obsolete (though some folks will leap at the chance for a very particular kind of “augmented reality”).
There are some great more traditional short narratives, too. Oculus Story Studio worked with Pixar director Saschka Unseld (The Blue Umbrella) to create Lost, a short where you find yourself on a dark, mysterious tropical island. You peer about the inky looming bushes and trees as a firefly flits through the foreground. A rustling in the bushes reveals a strange beast, running on long articulated legs, it’s tail glowing at the end with a ruddy red ball. The beast settles in a clearing and rests, night birds perching on it. Red lights in the bushes go off, and a large spotlight pierces through the trees, waking the creature. You turn to peer at the spotlight as it moves among distant branches. The heavy thud of something disturbingly huge approaches, and you huddle with the beast nervously. The trees part with a crack and an immense robot à la The Iron Giant comes crashing through, towering above you. It’s a great moment, and the story resolves with a perfect Pixar twist.
My favourite by far is The Turning Forest. Created by award-winning multimedia artist Oscar Raby, he narrates a story of playing in the woods with his sister when they were children. You’re surrounded by a glorious autumnal forest, stylized with bright colors. You hear the two kids laughing and playing, but you can’t see them. As you turn and crane your head, you can trace their path in the trampling of leaves, laughter punctuated by vegetal eruptions, fistfuls of red and orange flitting lazily back to the ground. One day, Oscar intones, his sister left him alone in the woods. And a great creature happened upon him. As with Lost, you hear the lumbering footsteps first. And then you see a wondrous animal walking between the trees, a multihued furry elephant with camel humps and a face like a Chinese dragon. The beast comes right up to you and you find yourself staring into its gigantic mouth, waiting to be eaten (will I see my bloody VR limbs as they’re ripped apart by giant molars?). But then the creature’s teeth start to make a strange music, distorted old-timey strains of strings as the wind moves across its sharp fangs. And it becomes entirely friendly and adorable. You ride on its back across a great blue sea, pink birds flying in formation before you. Then you arrive at the frozen shoals of the winter forest (made that much more real by the bone-penetrating air conditioning of the TIFF building), with tall trunks of ice and a gleaming ruby sunset. It’s an amazing experience and the closest I’ve come to feeling a genuine childlike wonder in years.
Most of the installations are short, in the order of six minutes, which is ideal for VR as it currently stands. Some run longer, but the cracks become more evident, and the chances increase you might feel some disorientation or discomfort. I was fine for the two hours I was there, but I definitely felt vertigo a few times. One installation, Senza Peso, a trippy ferryboat journey into the afterlife, allowed you to stand and move about while it unfolded, which was fine as it happened but left my legs a little wobbly after it was over. TIFF has facilitators at every installation, so if you feel weird or need technical assistance, someone is always there to help out. Not seeing your hands in the installations is distracting, making these immersive experiences strangely disembodied. But seeing your hands would mean controlling your hands, and that means a second camera. And seeing your hands would mean using your hands, which means an interactive environment. And using your hands would mean wanting physical sensation, which means haptic feedback, and holy crap this stuff is amazing but we’ve got a long way to go.
You might not be ready to plunk $2500 down for an Oculus rig and PC, but $200 US for the Samsung Gear VR is within reach (knowing it’s nowhere near as good), and Sony’s Project Morpheus VR headset will clock in at $400 US this fall. VR will transform everything, from movies and music to even how buildings are constructed (the implications of VR for architecture and construction are incredible). In the meantime, TIFF is here to let you dip your toes and see what’s it’s like. Come on in. The virtual water’s fine.
TIFF’s POP 03 runs from Thursday, August 18th to Saturday, August 20th. For more info and tickets, see here.