Until recently, I purposefully avoided the onslaught of virtual reality. Though I write for a publication that celebrates technological innovation, I don’t feel I need to experience it all personally. I am a film buff of long standing, and glowing rectangles a suitable distance away have always done the trick for me. I've long considered 3-D cinema a headache-inducing fad.
So it was with some trepidation that I stepped into the New Frontier exhibit at the Sundance Film Festival on one of the last days in January. I had been bombarded with emails about all the virtual reality movies and experiences on display, and decided it was my professional obligation to investigate.
The first thing I tried at the exhibition, which spanned two floors, was an experience called In the Eyes of the Animal. An attendant fitted me with an enormous customized helmet (pictured below) and a vest that, I soon learned, could vibrate. I was anxious: What an absurd amount of trust I had just placed in a bunch of strangers! They could imprint me with whatever nightmarish material they wished. I had consensually handed over my reality, with hardly any knowledge of what I was trading it for.
In the Eyes of the Animal turned out to be a mostly peaceful trip, something like being a bubble floating in an ocean full of bubbles. I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I did know that I felt small, and more than once, I had the feeling that I was vulnerable to predation. Afterwards, I was told that was exactly what In the Eyes of the Animal was about: It offered a journey through the lower rungs of an oceanic food chain.
My first VR trip was interesting but also befuddling, and I found the vibrating "haptic" vest mostly uncomfortable. I went upstairs to sample more of the exhibition.
Next up was Real Virtuality, a hot ticket at the festival that some waited up to an hour to experience. Real Virtuality was a kind of multiplayer VR game; my friend Mason and I tried it at the same time. Here’s what onlookers saw: Mason and me, strapped into a VR getup that included a headset, backpack, and trackers for our hands and feet, fumbling around in what amounted to a tiny black box theater, occasionally picking up real-life colorful cylinders on the floor and inserting them in a real-life box.
Here’s what Mason and I saw: three immersive environments—first a spaceship, then a futuristic city, and finally a temple—that we were instructed to navigate together. We saw virtual cylinders and a virtual box corresponding to the real thing.
Confusingly for our brains, only some objects rendered before our eyes had real-life correlatives; others, upon being touched, were revealed to be ghosts. When the final level—a temple maze—launched, the game’s operators suddenly and jarringly shouted at us: "Don’t lean on the walls!" Later someone (who asked to remain nameless) told me that on the first day of the exhibition, a person had done just that and fell flat on the floor, since the virtual walls had no real-life referent.
Mason and I were spared such a fate, however, and our experience was mostly thrilling. I was becoming a VR convert!
Then there was my trial run with Google Cardboard. If you haven’t experienced it yet—the New York Times dropped 1.2 million of them on subscribers in November—it's a small cardboard device that works like a ViewFinder for your own smartphone. Once you download a VR app, you can see whatever is happening in 3-D and move around within the virtual environment. The Google Cardboard film I saw was a delightful cartoon depicting an Ice Capades light saber battle, occasionally interrupted by a poorly trained bear. I laughed hysterically. The thing went down as easy as a Pixar short, and I could see how Google Cardboard’s ease of use was likely to be a major driver of VR adoption. (If you want to try VR quickly and cheaply in your home, simply buy a Google Cardboard viewer on eBay for about $3; once it arrives, download an app like NYT VR on your smartphone, and within minutes, you can be dodging a looming bison in your living room.)
So far, my VR experience was confusing, exciting, and fun. But my day was about to take a dark turn.
I wasn’t told much about Giant before I stepped into the theater showing it. I’d been told that it was based in part on the childhood experiences of an artist of Serbian origin, and that though she’d initially hesitated to make the work, she’d decided it was important.
Giant, it turned out, was a short fictional film depicting what are likely the last minutes of a family caught in a war zone. The parents and a young child have huddled in a cellar; I as the viewer was free to move my head around and see objects rattled from shelves as bombs fell in the distance—and then, finally, on us.
Them I watched a short VR film called Collisions. It turned out to be a documentary, including some 3-D animated scenes, on the subject of an indigenous Australian tribe’s contact with modernity, in the form of an atomic bomb test. A devastating scene depicted kangaroos fleeing futilely from a mushroom cloud, collapsing before my eyes, dead.
I thought I had stepped into New Frontier, mostly, to sample a few video games and see a few cartoons. Instead, I was simulating trauma.
What are the implications of creating virtual reality experiences that replicate and simulate trauma?
There are some who see only, or mostly, upsides. Take Chris Milk, the VR entrepreneur whose app, Vrse, has presented subject matter about Syrian refugees and others driven from their homes by war. In his March 2015 TED Talk, Milk said that he thinks VR has the possibility to become "the ultimate empathy machine." He has provided VR experiences of the downtrodden to decision makers at the World Economic Forum in Davos. As he says in his talk, VR "connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I've never seen before in any other form of media," and therefore, he thinks the technology has "the potential to actually change the world."
This is the claim that interests me—the claim at the heart of VR and perhaps of almost all documentary media: that it can change the world. By showing the horrors of war ever more viscerally, can we usher in a new era of peace?
It’s an idea that has existed as long as the photographic medium has. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag examines a book of early photographs of the Civil War dead. The caption to one particularly horrifying photo reads, "Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such a calamity from falling upon the nation." Many documentary photographers and filmmakers have since taken as an article of faith that their images play a causal role in effecting social change, in making the horrors they have captured with their lenses more rare. There is now something called the Puma Creative Impact award, sponsored by the sneaker company, whose stated aim is "to honor the documentary film creating the most significant impact in the world." Just the day before my visit to the VR exhibit, I met briefly with Cara Mertes of JustFilms, an initiative of the Ford Foundation that helps fund social-issue documentary films. JustFilms doesn’t speak of a mere abstract duty to record; its promotional materials speak concretely of "making a difference in people’s lives." Mertes conceded JustFilms was in the earliest stages of trying to quantify just how documentaries affected change.
Clearly, wars have not been eradicated since the advent of photography or the Puma Creative Award. So can we expect VR to succeed where more primitive mediums have not?
The 1995 film Strange Days imagines a dystopian world in which there is heavy demand for something called a "blackjack." We learn that blackjacks are virtual reality snuff films, downloaded from the brains of actual people who had died gruesomely. The misfortunes of the dead become the thrills of the living, and in the world of the film, entrepreneurs stepped in to make a profit.
I incline toward anxious thinking, so by the end of my day at Sundance’s VR exhibition, I was already imagining a Strange Days dystopia where, far from curing the world of suffering, VR merely commodifies the suffering of some for the entertainment of others. Worse than a black market of snuff films, even, might be a cultural elite going to VR film festivals, talking about how "visceral and moving" the experiences were over cocktails—and then doing nothing at all.
I explained my misgivings in an interview with Shari Frilot, who had curated the Sundance exhibition. How do we prevent that future, I asked? Given VR’s power, wasn’t there an obligation to make sure audiences engage with it productively? "I do think about it," said Frilot, but she said that she felt it was too early to think about best practices for VR practitioners. "I don’t think so much about how to purpose VR at this stage," she said, "because I don’t think we’re even to the stage yet of understanding what it does." She wasn’t even sure how to classify it yet as a medium; there was something more theatrical than cinematic about it, in that it "engages our sense of space . . . and our sense of space is where our survival instinct is housed." VR, then, can jack in more viscerally to the reptilian part of a viewer’s brain. What that meant and what people could or should do with that, she wasn’t yet sure.
As technology brings picture-makers nearer to delivering an experience of a more perfect empathy, it seems time to test that belief and fact-check the claim that it has the potential to improve the world. The era that perfected picture-making devices has also yielded new tools that should be able to measure the real, human effects of those devices. Facebook, which bought VR giant Oculus Rift, also controls more data about human sentiment and behavior than anyone else, and should be able to find a way to measure and report on the effects VR experiences have on users.
Thankfully, some people are measuring the effects of VR. So far, they tend to hail from the stodgy world of academics, rather than the sexier worlds of cinema and commerce. The tentative early data coming in is encouraging. One study published in Trends in Cognitive Science, titled "Changing Bodies Changes Minds," used VR to simulate the experience of living in a black body. Women who underwent the experience scored higher for egalitarianism on a test measuring bias called the implicit association test. Another study put VR users in the virtual body of a child, and similarly found measurable cognitive changes thereafter. And a kind of art-installation/science-experiment mashup called "Gender Swap" used VR to help users simulate switching gender.
But these encouraging experiments don't mean it's time to celebrate world peace yet. It's complicated. Another VR study on race swapping seems to have increased apparent racial bias for many participants. And since VR is so new, its long-term effects can only be speculated upon.
The more complex and artful a VR experience, the more difficult it can be to measure its effects in a scientifically meaningful way. One participant in "Gender Swap," while appreciating the experience, noted that the experimenters were unable to "answer questions about experimental rigor and potential directions for quantifying their claims for empathy building." (Her post was titled, "The Limits of Virtual Reality: Debugging the Empathy Machine.")
The Sundance space examining VR is appropriately named; this is indeed a new frontier. We know VR is exciting. We know people stand to make a lot of money off it. What we don't know yet, fully, is what it does. Those participating in the sexier and more lucrative corners of VR might consider tempering their claims until those toiling in academic backwaters have actually substantiated them.
Leaving New Frontier, I appreciated the makers who proceeded with a sense of reverence and caution. "As a maker of VR, you have a huge responsibility," said Milica Zec, one of the directors of Giant. I left Sundance thinking the same thing, and hoping her fellow VR makers agree.