A young girl sings a haunting melody as sketchily-rendered people walk around on their daily business. All of a sudden, a mortar shell hits and the street is filled with gray smoke and chaos.
This is Project Syria, a new virtual reality experience directed by Nonny de la Peña that was featured as part of the New Frontier exhibition at this year’s Sundance Festival in Utah. Using goggles and headphones, Project Syria puts its viewers on-scene at a real event that occurs in Aleppo in order to increase empathy and understanding about the civilian experience in Syria.
“With virtual reality, you can have a visceral, embodied experience,” said de la Peña, who believes that virtual reality can be used for journalism, documentary, interactive media and fictional stories. “Really what I would consider this is spatial narrative.”
De la Peña’s background is as a journalist — where she was a correspondent for Newsweek — and as a documentarian. She first put on goggles that tracked her movements while working at a lab in Barcelona.
“That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh my god. I can never build to make my audiences sit out there again,’” she said. “They have to be here in the middle of what’s going on. They have to be me: the reporter. They have to be on-scene as witnesses to really understand what’s going on.”
De la Peña’s first VR piece about food banks in Los Angeles was called Hunger in Los Angeles and debuted at Sundance in 2012.
“The problem was that there was only this $50,000 pair of goggles,” she said. “The push was on — I had to have goggles that I could take with me. Everyone in the lab pitched in to build these duct-taped crazy goggles. We had two pairs.”
On the team that put the headsets together was Palmer Luckey, the inventor of Oculus Rift and the original founder of Oculus VR, the now Facebook-owned virtual reality tech company.
“Palmer Luckey slept in my hotel room, helped drive the car back, we all did what we could to make the thing work.”
Hunger in Los Angeles had three-hour wait times at Sundance 2012 and helped seed interest in virtual reality among many other artists at the festival, including Chris Milk and Danfung Dennis, both of whom were featured in New Frontier this year.
Nine months later, Luckey did the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus Rift.
Among the viewers in 2012 was Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.
“Klaus Schwab did Hunger in L.A., took off the goggles, turned to me and said, ‘Can you have something ready for Syria for our next meeting in Davos?’”
Project Syria took six weeks to make. It was a hit in Davos, where world leaders and activists from John McCain to Peter Gabriel went through the experience.
“The world leaders really responded,” de la Peña said. “People were putting up direct deductions for Syrian refugees. I really saw an opening of understanding for people of what was going on for Syrian people rather than the battlefront, how many civilians were being caught in the craziness that was going on.”
De la Peña’s team calls her the “godmother of VR.” She calls her work immersive journalism, and she’s not the only one using virtual reality to raise social awareness.
Award-winning film director Rose Troche created Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party about sexual assault on college campuses. The first half of the experience is watched through the eyes a young man who ends up raping a young woman at a party. The second half is seen through the woman’s eyes as she stumbles drunk through the party and passes out.
Troche believes that virtual reality is best used to examine our humanity, and to “start a conversation.”
For other artists, virtual reality is an opportunity to create a “visual poem.” According to Glen Keane, a 38-year veteran of Disney Animation who has recently branched into VR, you can express more emotion in a few minutes of VR than in an entire feature-length film.
“I think about this as narrative,” he said, during one of the festival’s panels on the new medium. “I like the idea of being a storyteller. It’s a noble thing — and this is a new way of telling a story.”
But telling a story in the virtual space is very different from other media, where we have learned how to read narrative cues. In film, the viewer’s eyes are directed by camera, but in virtual reality, the viewer can look anywhere at any time. The storyteller must relinquish their control over the viewer’s gaze.
Viewers experience a similar anxiety. “As a viewer, I don’t know how to watch VR,” said Saschka Unseld, the creative director at Oculus Story Studio. “You want to see the whole film, not just a bit of it.”
In this way, virtual reality could be compared to immersive theatrical experiences like Sleep No More or The Drowned Man, where audience members follow characters through a maze-like set. Keane imagined it like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland, where the viewer’s eyes are directed through three-dimensional space using lighting and sound.
Other experiences at New Frontier were less focused on storytelling and more on immersion and interactivity. Max Rheiner, a professor at the Zurich University of the Arts, built a full-body machine to simulate the feeling of flying for his installation Birdly, which had festival-goers lining up early in the morning for a chance to “fly.”
“I want everyone to be able to do this,” said Chris Milk, an artist and filmmaker who has directed videos for the likes of Kanye West, Beck and Arcade Fire.
Milk recently founded VRSE, a VR production company focused on creating an open platform that anyone can use to create VR experiences. “I think VR is a technology that fundamentally allows a person to connect with another person in a way that’s never been done.”
Milk’s short film Evolution of Verse can be viewed using Google Cardboard, a foldable, DIY VR headset that costs $20 and uses a cell phone as a screen.
Google Cardboard began as a “20-percent project” but now has a full project team and was released in June 2014. Eight-thousand of the cardboard headsets were given away over the course of the festival.
“Suddenly you’re there and you don’t have to be reading what it looks like or feels like. By being embodied in the space you can learn so much, the way that we do in the real world, by using all of our body, all of our senses,” said de la Peña.
“I think the visceral, embodied nature of VR, where you literally have a duality of presence, where you know you’re here but you feel like you’re there too, is an extraordinary way to tell all kinds of stories.”
Listen to Katharine speak about her reporting for this story on KZSU, Stanford’s radio station: