Text from my brief presentation at a Virtual Reality (VR) Masterclass at the inaugural Taylor’s University Film Festival (TUFF) 20 November 2019. Many thanks to Taylor’s University and Ministry XR for the invite.
Sunday morning cartoons. Do you remember sitting in front of the tv while having breakfast? Do you also remember your mother shouting at you, reminding you not to sit too close to the screen?
Perhaps even as children, there was already an innate ability to step into different worlds. Long after the television was switched off, I would spend the rest of the day daydreaming about living within those worlds. At the time I believed that there was a possibility that those worlds were real and as a child, there was little difference between reality and fantasy.
Immersive experience and perspective
All forms of entertainment has always pushed towards being immersive. This is especially true for the way we watch films.
Think about how televisions became larger, and then of course larger screens in cinemas. The promise was always the same, a more immersive experience. But the boundaries of film remain; the narrative is fixed and perspective is contained, manipulated, and framed within that same black rectangle.
Perspective is truth. What you see is what you know, and therefore what you believe.
Documentaries have long struggled with balancing viewpoints of those within the film itself, and the viewpoint of the film itself. The what and the how of everything within that black rectangle influences the way you understand the subject at hand. And what you don’t see is an entire army of very specialised professionals working to create this version of reality.
With VR documentaries, there are a number of ways a story can be told. Films are no longer boxed in within fixed formats like short films, features, the 20 or 40 minute episode. Everything comes together as an ‘experience’ and perspective is no longer contained within a rectangle.
This experience can be guided, meaning the viewer is given visual cues where to look at what, and in some cases make conscious choices that determine the viewer’s path. This illusion of choice can work against the creators of the VR experience. When the narrative is paused, the viewer is momentarily taken out of the experience, dismantling any notion of immersion that was previously established. The feeling of detachment is reinforced, leaving viewers with the feeling of playing a game, and thus instinctively finds ways to beat the system.
Alternatively it can be open, where the viewer is presented with virtual environments within which they can choose where to look at and what to see. Once passive viewers now become active participants in a personal narrative, rather than a universal one.
ceh bah hep
ceh bah hep is a short documentary focusing on the identity and culture of the Bateq tribe in Taman Negara, Pahang. I started the project about a year ago(2018) to explore our relationship with the rainforest. The project is ongoing, with an aim towards developing VR educational modules to bring the rainforest into classrooms, museums, institutions.
Ultimately the point of telling a story is to convey information, to express ideas and emotions, and to be understood. With this film I wanted to see how an immersive experience changed the way we relate to the subject and environment within a documentary.
The project isn’t designed to tell you about the Bateq but to give you an experience of what is it like being there with them in the forest. It is experiential and not informative.
There is no blueprint as to what VR should be or how films should be made. When I started the project, simply presenting the film in VR was already a huge step forward. None of us knew how it would turn out or what the next step should be. But we were aware how quickly VR technology was advancing, and the tremendous potential these changes had in immersive storytelling.
(Note: In this section I share notes on specific VR projects from SXSW2019. I have edited this part out for clarity)
Being able to make decisions and therefore changing the course of a narrative is only a start. Today there are systems that allow viewers to physically move within the VR environment.
People from around the world are already socialising with each other on VRChat. This mode of interaction is unlike anything we already have with ‘traditional’ social media. On Facebook, your online avatar is a direct representation of you as you exist in the real world. VRChat offers a limitless existence, where you have the freedom to be whoever however.
You might think this is not so far fetched from the way our lives revolve around smartphones and social media today. Now, imagine what happens when you don’t take that headset off. Imagine living, working, playing, and sleeping in a virtual world. Imagine having complete control over everything you experience in this environment, where the boundaries of physicality is removed, and the mechanics fine tuned to function entirely at a cerebral level.
Imagine what happens when systems is supported by AI, backed by an infinitely powerful processing system, capable of designing and rendering reality in real time? Haptic gloves are already available, imagine a full body suit. Imagine deconstructing body and identity, or experiencing reality through the eyes and minds of alternate beings. Imagine travelling to planets beyond our solar system, or to even to the past.
And that I think is the future. VR will push us beyond story-telling and into world-building.