Newbies go to VeniceVR… but will they return next year? (part 1)

While reflecting on VeniceVR, I bumped into an article with a scaring but captivating title: Why VR is Dead #2 by Frederic Lecompte, which is a follow up reflection on Why VR is dead by Andrew Jenkinson. Both date back months ago and yet, after the Venice Film Festival – which I’m mentioning again since I’m probably one of its greatest fans ever (sorry, not really sorry) – they seem particularly fitting to the present situation.

Yesterday, after an afternoon with friends spent watching IT and Rock of Ages (someone hire Tom Cruise for playing the Rockstar more often, please), we ended up talking about virtual reality for two hours.

Some curious things came out of the discussion, first of all because my friends are all VR newbies and Venezia75 was their first time trying VR stories; secondly, because I’m emotionally invested in convincing people that VR is something incredible so the doubts they expressed (and the desires they manifested) were interesting elements of analysis.

First time’s a charm: impressions on VR and VeniceVR

Let’s try for a moment to forget the “I have lost my VRginity” poster at Venezia75, which was probably the most disturbing thing I saw in Venice (and I did try Kobold, mind you).

This year the Festival was certainly more attentive to new people trying virtual reality. The Biennale made available a special accreditation (for up to five days) that allowed “outsiders” of the Venice Film Festival (people who did not have an accreditation for the festival itself) to discover works at VeniceVR.

After listening to me talk about why VR was the most incredible invention since fanfictionsfor 12 months straight, some of my friends gave up and bought the special accreditation for Saturday the 8th. Almost all of them booked ten installations, the maximum number of bookings allowed for a single day (and, by the way, it could be interesting to analyze what installations they booked, since they based their choices only on some technical detail about the work and on few plot lines).

Lecompte, on his above-mentioned article, writes:

“The world of entertainment is the gateway that will bring VR to the public, so you have a duty to make these “first times” that you offer beautiful, no, memorable first times”

(Frederic Lecompte, Why VR is dead #2)

True words. In fact, while quality at the Venice Virtual Reality is generally good and sometimes even excellent, I still asked my friends, few days after the festival had begun and I had already tried some installations, what they were going to start with. I was worried some works could be too much for them… or not enough. Fortunately I was proven wrong and, in general, they were all very enthusiastic about how their experience started.

Friends relaxing between installations at VeniceVR

However, their opinions on VR ended up being very different, even in open conflict one with the other.

So, here are three of the topics that emerged during our discussion: I’m mentioning them not because I want to share some shocking discovery (actually, some of them are quite common observations) but because they are the first things that some people who had never tried VR before felt the need to express in relation to its use in in an artistic/related-to-entertainment environment such as a film festival.

Keep in mind that all the people involved in the discussion heard enthusiastic reviews about VR from me and from other friends who tried it before and thus went to Venice with a positive attitude (which is something that definitely makes a difference). Also, despite not being regular visitors of the Venice Film Festival nor having a technical knowledge of film-making processes, they all go to cinema at least twice a month and are frequent readers and frequent viewers of TV-shows.

1. From “VR will replace cinema” to “VR works, but only at home”: the problem of VR Theatre

I guess it is inevitable, when you start a discussion on VR, to ask yourself: “Ok, but this thing I tried… where is it going?”.

And you know? It’s not even about finding out if people out there believe VR can partially substitute cinema or if they think it represents something completely different. What is interesting is to know the reasons behind this perception, and they are often related to interactive processes, both with other members of the audience and with the installation itself.

While, on one side, a friend affirmed that the great thing about VR is that “you feel part of the story because what’s outside (and who is outside) disappears and what remains is only you, alone, in a different reality. It was about time!“, on the other side that was exactly the main problem for another: you feel disconnected from the collective experience of watching a movie… but at the same time VR is not advanced enough, technically speaking, to make you believe you really are somewhere else.

I was surprised when I heard this because while I don’t believe, as said in multiple occasions, that virtual reality will replace cinema, I strongly feel (and like) its immersive effect. So I asked my friend to explain what she meant and found out that the main problem was not VR but how you express VR, so, for her , a specific type of experience: the VR Theatre.

You just move your head left and right, because not much happens around you. I was watching two people talking in front of me, but they looked kinda blurred so it was not like watching you two talking, here. It was similar to watching a movie, but with the difference that I had a headset on, so I could not even interact with other people next to me and, I don’t know, comment on what was happening“. Therefore, to her, it was an experience that does not have any sense existing in a cinema, which she feels is for collective situations. Rather, it could work perfectly for an evening at home, which, in her opinion, is the place where VR for entertainment could find a better place.

I pointed out that her perception could have been different if she had tried another story at the VR Theatre. For example, in Elegydirected by Marc Guidoni and produced by Komintern (here), you feel like you are the ghost, so you have a role to play: it is not interaction, but it is different from just watching.

It could work in that case, but in general there is still a problem with make believe. People did not look real (in the story I tried), so they did not feel real to me“.

A technology problem or something more? This question led us to our second topic and you may read about it here: Newbies go to VeniceVR… but will they return next year? (part 2)

(cross-posted on Linkedin)