VR: The World Through a Different Lens

Latinitas Reports from SXSW 2017

Generating perspective through storytelling is not a completely new concept and filmmaking is one of the mediums that has had a stronghold on this for quite a while now. Virtual reality (VR) is one of the latest technological shifts in entertainment and its potential is causing many film and media industry leaders to evolve from skeptics into prominent advocates. This potential is not necessarily based on the monetary gain, but on its various artistic and practical possibilities.

SXSW panels The Future of Cinema in the Age of VR and Unrest VR: Finding the Form to Tell Your Story both focused on the impact VR films can have on the industry, audiences, and society. Both panels included women who have made an impact in the development on VR. In the Future of Cinema panel, these women included Joan Parsons, a Sr Programmer from Showroom Cinema and Kate Wellham, a music and digital coordinator from Live Cinema UK and The Brick Box. They shared the stage with Dan Tucker, producer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and Rene Pinnell, CEO and founder of Kaleidoscope VR.

Parsons led the discussion by asking relevant questions reflecting those of skeptics while Wellham focused primarily on the isolation concern many critics have, which she said is being addressed by Dome development. Domes are 360-degree screen installations that will immerse people into virtual reality while also inviting human interaction, Wellham said. She believes that putting VR content into these domes can be beneficial for exhibitors since it’s unique and immersive qualities are very appealing to audiences, yet she advocated dome experiences should always be created and led by the artists rather than the exhibitors.

“It’s important to view VR as an art form and present it as such,” said Dan Tucker, producer at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Tucker was a VR skeptic at first, but after taking part of projects that were heavily dependent in VR, he saw the potential VR content could have on storytelling. Even though VR has proven to give audiences a unique experience, most critics in the tech industry still question whether those experiences are substantial or meaningful. Not only are there fears of isolation but the medium is perceived as gimmicky or unnecessary.

Thanks to the dome efforts, the VR experience has proven to be inclusive, substantial, and entertaining to the small audiences who are taking part in the VR movement today. Wellham argues against critics and cautions tech leaders that VR shouldn’t be perceived as niche since engagement and involvement — elements that are universally praised in cinema — are enhanced when audiences use VR. Tucker believes that the first step into making VR more mainstream in cinema is to educate people and guide them well into the technology so that audiences can understand how to use and appreciate good VR experiences.

While the Future of Cinema panel was a general overview of the possibilities and concerns of VR in cinema, the Unrest VR panel presented an example of a film already being developed within the medium. The panel was led by “Unrest” director Jennifer Brea and the documentary’s producers Lyndsey Dryden and Arnaud Colinart. Brea shows how her life was instantly changed by the effects of her life-changing illness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. To develop perspective and change the opinions people might have on rare medical conditions, Brea and both producers realized they needed to immerse the audience into Brea’s experiences, which is something VR would do quite well.

By using VR on “Unrest,” Brea attempts to bring audiences closer to the disease by recreating the reality of someone who suffers from it, which can prove to be revolutionary in the medical field. For example, individuals with CFS are very sensitive to light at an almost excruciating level, and the VR experience mimics the visual sensation of that symptom for the audience throughout the documentary.

“I think that being able to bring doctors into that experience with VR has a lot of potential to help them better understand how to support their patients. One of the limitations of medical training is that they only see a patient for a tiny sliver of their life… and with this you get the opportunity to show how a patient is living day to day,” said Brea.

Overall, Brea’s point is that this use of VR is one of the many major possibilities that the medium is showing the potential to accomplish, and the fact it goes beyond art or entertainment is a testament to the technology’s merit. And even though VR is still a long way from becoming the norm in entertainment and media, both panels proved that the many ideas being fostered by the experimentation of its show its potential benefit to the arts and society as a whole.

Personally, I think that if Brea’s goal is accomplished through VR, then there is a strong possibility VR could be applied to future projects that show the life of others who might be misunderstood or disenfranchised in society. This means the stories of minorities, immigrants, foreigners, and women could be told through VR in order to develop perspective and empathy from audiences.

About the Writer
Jose Silva Salmerón, also known as Antonio Salmerón, is a Content Producer at Latinitas and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s pursuing a degree in both Public Relations and Radio-Television-Film with a business foundations certificate. Aside from working and studying, Salmerón enjoys watching films, writing scripts and assisting on various personal and school related film projects. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.