Reporting from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival
I had little idea of what to expect as I entered Hero, the solo participant VR experience at the New Frontiers exhibit.
“If it’s too much at any time, don’t take off your headset. Close your eyes and raise your hands and I will guide you out,” says my guide.
“Okay,” I reply. What I know so far is that I will leave Park City, Utah, and enter a Syrian village.
To prepare for this journey, I receive a backpack for the VR kit and a headset. As the headset is adjusted, I receive instructions not to climb over anything or on anything, but that I can reach out and touch what is around me.
“Close your eyes and I will lead you in,” says my guide.
I can’t see anything yet other than for a sharp white glare of infinitely white space. It’s not like staring at a blank wall, there’s a certain depth to these little white pixels, but I close my eyes and take the hands of my guide.
After, I consider this could have served more than one purpose. First, to keep the built display quite hidden from view, and second, to put me, the participant, in a position of vulnerability. I had no idea of the emotional journey I was about to have.
“When the music starts, this is the beginning of the experience,” says my guide, and then I’m left alone.
The music begins and a scene develops around me, pixelating into view. I’m in what must be a Syrian village. I’ve never been there, but it looks like somewhere I could imagine as Syria from little snippets I’ve seen on the news. For the moment, my movement is confined to a small area of a few square meters. In VR, this barrier appears as some barrels and pieces of wood and rubble.
Since I’ve been told it’s okay to interact with the set, I reach out and feel the barrel, the wood, and even the grains of sand on the barrel which must be set up around me IRL*. I accidentally drop some of the sand to the ground as I forget I’m in a studio.
Having established my boundaries, I now begin to study my surroundings. There’s a closed door and wall to my back. Sand colored buildings loom across the horizon against a clear blue sky. The main block of buildings is across the street to my left, ahead is a dirt square where children play and to the right is a low wall that blocks the area behind. There’s rubble and debris laying about. I bring my attention to the characters speaking to my left.
It’s a father and daughter fixing an engine. When the daughter presses the button after some fiddling, the engine starts and the dad says how proud he is. A dog runs through the square and the daughter runs off to play. The father watches over her and the others in the square.
The group of men across the street are busy arguing at the corner store and pay no attention to the action behind them. Now, I hear the sound of an aircraft and a helicopter comes into view. I see it before the characters do. It’s the dad who sees it after I do.
I forget what he says as I watch the explosive launch from the helicopter, but everyone began to run at the sound of his voice. It was a futile measure. No matter whether inside or outside, destruction was imminent.
As the missile impacted, dirt and wind struck my face, clearly an additive IRL, but at this moment, it was a part of this new world. I couldn’t help but to turn my head away and to close my eyes. Was there heat? I think there was, but I also know it could have been my own mind that filled in the gaps. I remember heat, but VR is known to play tricks on the mind.
It’s clear that some of those who I’d become acquainted with perished immediately, obliterated. One of the survivors runs to the door to my left and is crushed as the wall falls into him. He’s crushed. I can see his limp hands dangling through the rubble.
“Help, help me!” a voice yells.
The barrier is down in the direction of the voice. I use my hands to test what may be a new border. There’s no resistance so I step cautiously towards the sounds of the voice.
This time there is definitely heat as I step through some low lying crackling flames. I’m not scared of heights, but I stop as I find myself in a blazing room with the back wall blown out to a significant drop to the streets below.
“Help, help me!” the voice yells, but I hesitate. There’s no obvious path to the voice that calls for help.
Now, I see the dog from earlier, it looks back to me as it follows the sound of the voice. It slips around the bend into the next room, right along the edge of the building. I walk to the ledge and peak over the edge… it’s a long way down, but I follow, holding onto the edges of the wall. As I test the boundaries again, my foot looses its place as I search for a foothold in mid air. So there is a drop. I hold on tighter to the wall.
After scaling the edge of the flaming building, I slip around the corner into the next room. The ceiling here has collapsed and someone is trapped underneath on the other side of the room. The dog looks at me again, and enters into a small space where I clearly cannot follow.
“Help me!” cries the voice, “give me your hand!”
I find a gap in the wall and offer my hand. I feel the soft touch of a real hand as I make contact with the character IVR*.
“Thank you, thank you,” says the voice, but I am too late. There’s another person on the other side of the wall who collects the body that breathed life seconds ago, even held my hand. The man sobs over the body of the woman.
Just as suddenly as the experience began, the burning flames, death and destruction dissolve once more into an infinite white.
“Take my hands and I will guide you out,” says my guide. I close my eyes, take the hands of my guide and follow her away from Syria, back to Park City.
I only have a few minutes to speak with the guide after. There’s no doubt that this piece has had a significant effect.
“This is everyday for them in Syria,” says my guide. “You saw rubble everywhere, and this is why they don’t rebuild. It’s a daily occurrence for them.”
I ask what they want to use this for, and they say it’s something they are still working on. They make their own headsets, so this is a way for them to test their technology, and the reactions of people who encounter these experiences.
We discuss the news as well. It was not an hour earlier that someone I spoke with someone who said they believe VR is not a good thing, that it pushes us apart. But what if I saw the news like this every day? What if I was brought to the location and experienced what was happening around the world?
This is only my second year at Sundance, but so far I’ve seen a steady theme that is interested in the human condition, connection, emotion…
This experience made me feel, and I’m sure it will stick with me for a while. When I try to think back to the last time I recall “9 more dead in Syria,” for example, I can’t remember. It didn’t mean anything to me then, but now it does.
I felt relieved to step away from this experience, and wondered what it would have been like if the characters and setting weren’t animated, but a digital representation of the real world. I mentioned the time when I watched Hurt Locker, and that if I’d seen Hurt Locker in this way, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through much of the movie.
There’s no doubt that Hero would have been traumatizing if I saw death and destruction like this so close and with so much more detail.
So what was I left with as I walked out of the exhibit? I felt connected to the digital characters and felt as if I had shared their experience of a bombing. I can only imagine what it must really be like, but now it’s not just another story, now I care.
This is the power of storytelling in VR. It can change the way we view the world.
*IVR- in VR