Why is intellectual curiosity important for VR?

A follow up of “Reflecting on its future with Marc Guidoni“, about VR and prejudices

What happens when those who do not believe VR is something worth trying have the power to influence other people’s opinion on it?

Some days ago I posted an article about newbies’ reactions to VR for entertainment when they try it for the first time.

I was overjoyed to see how much the people I talked with ended up loving virtual reality. It made me realize that the audience, at least the kind of audience that gets passionate about things (1), is ready for VR and eager to see how it can be used to create a cinematic experience.

…and sure enough: trailer of Star Wars immersive experience at Disneyland. For more informations: TheVoid)

However, it would be unrealistic to believe that all the people who try VR for the first time feel the same. And, not surprisingly, it would also be unrealistic to think that all the people who say they don’t like VR have actively tried it. 

This would not be a concern but for the fact that sometimes they are the same people with the power to influence public opinion on certain topics.

When I mentioned the panel on VR that took place in Venice, I did not know much about what had happened, but I was aware of how much it had annoyed VR artists who had joined the event.

Marc Guidoni, author and director of Elegy, a VR Theatre story produced by Joanna Szybistand Komintern, contacted me a few days later to discuss what had come to pass during the panel.

We ended up talking about many things (some of them here) but what he shared about the panel was enlightening and it gave me a lot to think about in relation to the future of VR.

What happened at the Biennale College Cinema VR panel

During the Biennale College panel, the four VR projects supported by the Biennale itself (therefore, not in the official competition) were presented; some film critics, well known in the cinema world, were invited to offer their opinions on the installations.

Film critics who deserve our respect for what they do in their field”, said Marc.

Sadly, this respect was, evidently, not bidirectional. “You can believe what you want: if you don’t like VR, it’s ok, it is not a problem. But you have people there, people who worked to create those projects, so you must be at least a little delicate in the way you say things. The lack of politeness from all but one of the critics at the event was extremely embarrassing”. 

Press Conference – Biennale College Cinema © La Biennale di Venezia – foto ASAC (5)

It seems the American film critic David Bordwell, who dedicated this article to his experience with the Biennale College, was the only one who shared his opinions and suggestions on those installations with courtesy.

But he also showed something the others did not, something that for Marc is even more important: intellectual curiosity. “People were saying things about VR even though they had experienced nothing or very little about it. It was as if they were mentally blocked”. 

Both me and Marc agree that it is sad to notice a lack of intellectual curiosity in people who built their career on intellect.

At the Venice Film Festival, it happened more often that I would have liked: to meet someone who looked down on virtual reality as if they had tried it all their lives and had found it lacking… only to find out they did not even know what VR was about, to start with.

Actually, it is something that never ceases to surprise me. When I first visited VeniceVR, I thought virtual reality was all about videogames: so, it was incredibly rewarding to find out how wrong I had been. I have to admit that I do not much understand how people do not enjoy the surprise that comes with new discoveries.

Obviously, it does not mean they have to like the new discovery but it means they should at least give it an intellectual chance… and that is not the same as trying it once, with your mind already set on “I’m not going to like this”, and then make judgements.

First and foremost, you must look at new things with an open mind; then, after that, I believe you need to start looking at them as if that mind was not your own anymore. Put somebody else’s shoes on and ask yourself, “I know what this experience does for me. Now, what if I was someone else? Would I like it or not?”.

Personal taste vs objectivity: a digression on the VeniceVR jury

Opposite reviews by David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter and Walker MacMurdo, Willamette Week on the movie “From Afar – Desde allá“, 2015

I remember a conversation I had with two friends a long time ago during a movie festival. It was about personal tastes vs objectivity and how much they count, respectively, when you write a review for a movie.

We ended up agreeing that while you can certainly like something that is not perfect and dislike a technical masterpiece, your knowledge of where the movie comes from – technically and artistically – usually shape your perception. This knowledge needs to be explained and shared if you want other people, with a sensitivity different from yours, to appreciate a movie that objectively deserves appreciation.

If critics approach cinema this way, why should they do anything different with other media used to tell stories, such as VR?

IT, directed by Andy Muschietti, and Wolf Creek 2, directed by Greg McLean. Reviews of these two movies were strongly influenced by reviewers’ previous knowledge of genres tropes and by their understading of inside references to other similar films

This conversation came to my mind when a friend of mine asked me about the jury of VeniceVR.

A premise: I have not talked with the three judges of Venezia75, but for the initial question about the relationship between VR and cinema I asked to Susanne Bier.

I don’t have a way of knowing if they liked what they tried, if they were expecting something different, if they found artistic inspirations in what they saw. That’s why what I’m saying is not specifically about them. It is a more general reflection, that does not want to be polemic, but simply raise a question.

In my opinion, it is not a problem when people at their first experiences with VR are asked to judge a competition of VR works: their judgement could be free of preconceptions and also the awe-effect will probably be at its highest.

However, there are some risks when three people who are mostly unaware of how virtual reality works are the only judges in a VR competition: how can they fully understand what is “behind” the installation? How can they judge the technical aspects used to convey the story, to direct the attention, to address the lack of a frame? How can they fully comprehend the background and interpret what they are experiencing?

In some ways, it would be like asking someone who has only ever seen impressionist paintings to judge Fontana’s open cuts on canvases. They could certainly have feelings about it and maybe guess how it was created and what it wants to convey, but their perception would nevertheless be incomplete. Even though both Monet and Fontana are considered Art and both can be found in museums.

Claude Monet’s La Femme à l’ombrelle — Madame Monet et son fils and Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale. Attese

For this reason, I think that at least one judge in a VR competition should have a strong expertise on the technical aspects of VR and even more on the current state of art, in order to answer other judges’ doubts and help them see aspects they might be missing.

Mind you, I’m not writing this to complain about VR winners of Venezia75 – whose installations I loved (and a special place in my heart will always be reserved to Buddy VR) – nor about the section per se, which was very well organized.

Rather, I’d like to express a concern about the future of VR for entertainment. A future that could be threatened by prejudices caused by a lack of knowledge and, what is worse, by a lack of desire for knowledge.

On how prejudices could impact audience’s response to VR for entertainment

Prejudgements become prejudices only if they are not reversible when exposed to new knowledge

G. Allport, 1954 (2)

I’m sure all of you, when you come home from film festivals, have someone who asks you about the movies of the line-up: if you liked them or not, if they should watch them or stay as far away as possible from them, and so on. Same with VR: “Did you like the installations you tried?”, is a common question.

Those people trust your opinion and partially shape theirs on what you say to them, because they believe you to be, at least in part, a reliable source.

It works like this with reliable sources: if someone who is considered an expert in a field tells you “That thing sucks”, well, it is possible that you won’t even feelthe need to try it, because you automatically believe them. You expect them to know what they are talking about, even though the field they are experts on is similar to but not exactly the one they are commenting.

Back to the art metaphor, which actually fits the Venice Film Festival since a similar topic was covered by one of the movies in competition, Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (below, the trailer):

Let’s pretend you have never seen a Van Gogh before and someone who is a recognized expert in impressionism tells you, “That thing is not art; that thing is horrible; it does not make any sense; it should have been done like this or like that”.

What is your reaction? If you do not let yourself look at that Van Gogh with your own eyes, if you do not wonder about Van Gogh’s creative process and study where his work comes from, you will probably take what that person told you as a given. After all, they know more about art than you, don’t they?

Once again, the same goes for VR: if someone talks about it and tells you what to think about it, they are probably doing it with full knowledge of the facts. Or so you guess.

The idea that they have barely tried it (and when they did, they did not put much heart into that) does not even cross your mind.

(cross-posted on Linkedin)


(1) see the concept of participatory culture and works by Henry Jenkins (such as Textual Poachers, 1992 and Fans, Bloggers and Videogames, 2006)

(2) Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Oxford, England: Addison-Wesley.

Cover image: Photocall – Virtual Reality
© La Biennale di Venezia – foto ASAC