River College VR: a new Italian project on virtual reality

Phase 1 of the River College VR in Padua comes to an end but people are already asking to replicate it in 2020. Let’s see why

The first time I heard of the River College Virtual Reality I was in Paris (to be precise, I was at Disneyland Paris, trying to convince myself I would not have died if I had tried the Tower of Terror. Note to posterity: you do not die, but it feels like you do, so just.. go prepared, you know?).

Paris is the place where some of my favourite VR companies were born so I was very happy to find out there that a three-year course about virtual reality would take place in Italy and in a city, Padova, so close to where I live.

The final aim of River College VR looked very interesting too: the creation of a short production in VR (the first of eight short films) to celebrate one of the most famous artistic sites in Padua, the Cappella degli Scrovegniand Giotto’s fresco cycle. All this to support the ‘Padova Urbs Picta‘ project for the inclusion of these sites in the World Heritage List by UNESCO.

Interior of Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua – source.
If you haven’t yet, please visit it: it’s breathtaking

I immediately signed up for the event, even though I did not have many informations on how the college would work. And what I discovered exceeded my expectations.

What is River College VR

This project rises from a suggestion, and that is the desire to find, in the present time, a bridge of imagination that can connect the past with the future. On one side of this bridge there is the city of Padova, a place of knowledge and beauty […]; on the other side, there is the most innovative and engaging cinematic tehcnology of the moment, virtual reality

from the official brochure of the River College VR

The River College VR (1) is a three-year journey made up of workshops, meetings, internships and expositions, developed to convey to the participants the knowledge necessary to make a video in Virtual Reality.

From March 19 to March 23 in Padua, the first phase of the college took place at the Musei Civici agli Eremitani (a worthy location, aesthetically speaking). Five study days in which Italian and international speakers talked about different topics related to virtual reality: ethics, storytelling, fillmaking, cultural heritage (here you can download the program).

What Italy offers nowadays – in terms of virtual reality – is certainly interesting: there have been great workshops and daily events on VR in the past few years (one of the first I joined was IUSVE conference in Verona in 2017, for example). There are cutting-edge research centers, amazing festival experiences with specific sections dedicated to VR (VeniceVR of the Venice Film Festival in the first place, but also the Milano Film Festival or the Trieste Film Festival) and obviously great companies working in VR/AR/MX and quite interesting educational courses (the master in virtual reality by Big Rock, to mention one).

However, to my knowledge, an approach like the one chosen by the River College Virtual Reality is not unheard of but certainly quite new, at least in my country. Let’s see why.

Welcome you all, newbies and experts

The thing that I liked the most of the River College VR was the fact that this first week of study was open to anyone interested.

Yes, this meant that the panelists had often to start from the basics. So, obviously, participants in the audience who work in VR or have studied it already knew some of the things that were discussed. A bad thing? I don’t think so and for two reasons.

Reason one: it’s very interesting to see how people who work in VR concretely approach similar concepts in their works. The same starting point (for example, elements that influence user experience) can lead to completely different outcomes. The examples presented by panelists clearly demonstrated this.

Reason two: as someone who knows something of VR, I could not stop observing how “neophytes” reacted to some concepts I was already familiar with. I think that is quite important: to study reactions, to talk with the new potential users… Indeed, some of the problems we are now facing in VR (for example “how can we make a larger fruition possible?” or the popular “VR: how can we make it a less ‘lonely’ experience?”) could be faced better if we went to the people we suppose feel lonely while trying VR and ask them if they actually… do.

(important a/n: I know there are a lot of great researchers out there who are working in this direction. What I mean is that, to me, it was nice to see a conference that was less for the experts and more for the… debate between people at different levels of expertise/experience).

Moments at the River College VR:
on the left, people try VR at HIT – Human Inspired Technologies Research Centre;
in the middle, pic above: Elisa Della Chiesa experiences Richard Ramchurn’s brain controlled movie “The Moment“;
in the middle, pic below: members of the audience and, among them, professor Federico Savina, taking notes;
on the right; a student tries one of the virtual tours of movie sets offered by theCasa del Cinema di Trieste. At the table, Gianluca Novel, Andrea Dresseno and Giulia Lavarone)

Bonus point: although there were not many people present, it was nice to see their variety, especially in age. From young University students (and even a couple of younger kids) to much older people. People who, as I wrote in a post, had an incredible career and yet are still so young inside to admit that “I did a lot of things but I do not know anything about all this and I wish I had more years ahead of me to study it properly”. So encouraging and heartwarming.

An holistic approach where different fields interact, discuss (with fervor) and share suggestions

Virtual reality was presented in its various forms during these study days. People discovered more about its role in psychological and health-related issues, about its use in archeology and art in general, about its importance as an educational instrument and about its relation with cinema and stories.

Panels and discussions:
on the left, pic above: Luciano Gamberini, professor at the General Psychology Department of the University of Padua and director of the Human Inspired Technologies Research Centre (HIT) in Padua;
on the left, pic below: Federico Savina, professor at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia di Roma and sound technician for music and cinema, who worked with directors such as Fellini, Visconti and Morricone;
on the right: Daniel Fraga, VR Designer, Developer and Architect, discussing storytelling with Antonio Giacomin, creative technologist, producer and creator of 360.fluido.tv)

I felt in love with VR when I discoverd all its possibilities in different fields and I’m ready to bet many people at the River College VR felt the same, if we consider the number of people who have later signed up for to the three-year course.

Guess what? Yes, there were a couple of fiery moments between panelists and the audience. Nothing like in Venice, though… Mostly because we all just wanted to understand: understand different approaches, different perspective. We wanted to reach an agreement on the words we should use when talking about a specific media, for example, as Antonio GiacominMassimiliano Borghesi and Farah Polato effectively summarized.

Once again, situations where different people with different backgrounds (but equally open-minded) come together help everyone in VR understand that it is not about fighting to get a place in this big world of storytelling. Rather it is a matter of understanding what makes us different and what makes us similar to other media who works with storytelling in order to cultivate our peculiarities, our spaces, our own language, but also make the best out of a collaboration.

“Tutti i salmi finiscono in gloria”: moments over food and drinks

In Italy we have a saying: “tutti i salmi finiscono in gloria”, “all psalms end with a ‘glory’ “. That is, no matter what you are doing: at some point you will all be sitting around a table eating and drinking together. And, sorry world, but it is true: the best ideas, the best relationships, the best moments always come out when you are there, talking over a good plate of pasta, maybe, and having a glass of wine.

The River College VR was about this too: sharing “social lunches” and “social drinks” (with a classic Veneto spritz…) with panelists and people from the event and talk about the topics emerged during the day, the projects to come and sometimes about philosophical matters on real and virtual, art and life, virtual reality and cinema.

I could not be there for most of them (a/n: Antonio Giacomin, I can hear you judging me, and I do agree: shame on me) and, I have to say, that is something I’m really sorry about: not having the time to share these social moments the event offered.

Pics, though, can quite convey the atmosphere.

Where is the River College VR going now?

Those who registered to the three-year course will soon start the second phase and I’m eager to discover more about it. But there are also some very insisting requests to replicate the study days in 2020, too.

Certainly, some things need to be fixed (an Italian-English translator could be quite helpful to many, in my opinion; also, there needs to be more attention to the advertising of such a great event and to social networking aspects).

However, this was a promising first edition, which not only its great artistic director Emilio Della Chiesa, but also his collaborators, Romina Zanon and Elisa Della Chiesa in primis, managed very well. I’d like to thank them for their work and, above all, I would like to thank all the amazing panelists who joined the event and, among them Gerda LeopoldMikhail Antykov and Richard Ramchurn who let the audience experience their productions. With you words and your works you all made some who had hardly ever heard of VR before fall in love with it.

That is what I call a success.

(cross-posted on Linkedin)


(1) the project was created by the cultural association Researching Movie and is sponsored by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo and the Municipality of Padua, in cooperation with the Culture Department and the University of Padua