Commentary

VR: Or, Nausea As Added Value

“You’re no fun.”

This is accepted as conventional wisdom in our family. I lack spontaneity. I overthink all proposals. I am not the go-to guy for cool new ideas. My mechanical ineptitude is legion.

“Hon, how about snow tubing this weekend?”

“I have no depth perception. You know I can’t tell whether the oncoming tree is five or fifty yards away.”

“Dad, want to come on the roller coaster?”

“Vertigo. Only if you want to peel vomit off your neck and me off the floor I will be hugging.”

“Archery?”

“See above. Depth perception, vertigo, mechanical ability. I think I had to sign something in my 20s agreeing never to handle weaponry of any kind.”

And so of course I am the perfect guy to evaluate virtual reality, the bright shiny object that leverages 3D, invites you to spin in place to appreciate a full environment, and a small spirit of adventure.

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And yet here I am after spending several hours testing out the higher-profile VR projects available on both the NY Times VR app and technology provider Jaunt’s still arrogant enough to declare that most of what I have seen is underwhelming.

The Times’s journalistic efforts seem to be immersing you in setting -- what appears to be the default aesthetic of VR. A wonderful article on the drama of wartime child refugees is illustrated with a 360-degree view of a slum or of boating through a swamp. In most cases there is a focal point of action or meaning, as if the camera started with a standard 2D still perspective, But the design of VR is to leave us loads of time to spin and gaze and feel in control. To be sure, there is some accretive value to these experiences, but the main action and point of the scene is still contained in a narrow frame that might actually be more effective in a still image -- a frozen, directed gaze. Having the freedom to direct your own scene in VR runs the risk of providing control and immersiveness at the expense of insight.

Interestingly, one of the most thoughtful uses of VR I have seen is a branded entertainment from the automaker Mini. “Backwater” is a deliberately obtuse 7-minute short that drops us into the end of a heist story we barely follow. But “dropping us in” is the key sense here. The VR camera is positioned in a voyeur’s spot. In the opening scene, for instance, we are removed from the scene with a few small objects blocking a full view.

Most of the compelling action occurs in a standard frame, but we are privy to and can track the “off stage” movements of cars and entering and exiting characters if we like elsewhere in the frame. Less is more here. Being able to virtually turn one’s head 45 degrees to track incoming action enhances the feeling of being in scene. The power of the directional audio track can’t be overstated either. It is the out of view sound cues that keep you, the invisible character, on edge and peering about -- much like an accomplice. Too many VR scenes I have tried encourage the eccentric movement when the impact comes from the smaller, more natural gaze shifts the technology makes possible.

The branding element is exemplary here. As in most of Mini’s branded placements (“The Italian Job”), the car’s simple presence is noticeable because of its inherently distinct design. It just has to sit there to be noticed. But in a brilliant stroke, the last scene of the short film puts us in the car’s back seat, which is itself a feature tout for the new, larger Mini. But attending to the car (you can look around the interior) seems unforced because emotionally all the action is between the man and woman in the front seats. While most VR views tend to look to set you in vast space to peruse, this long scene zags instead and uses VR to make an intimate aesthetic and marketing impact.

Like all emerging media technologies, the early uses of VR are too exuberant about the basic new effect to figure out how it might have a real aesthetic role. Six decades after monsters, fists and syringes jutted into the camera in the first laughable 3D films, deliberate uses of that technology are not much better. And so it is quite possible we may never learn our way out of this early stage of VR. Likewise, adding greater viewer control and interactivity to a filmed scene has never been as liberating in digital video as some hoped. Whatever happened to that movie and TV future where we all became our own director and switched views on the action? We already have a medium for such free-range interactive story-experiencing. It is digital gaming. And this is why VR will almost certainly find its largest role in gaming.

Outside of that realm, VR may be limited, and not just by unwieldy gadgetry and the isolated nature of the experience. History suggests that while technology evolves art -- even enhances and reinvents some aspects of aesthetic impact -- powerful story still relies on organized action, a limited point of view, narrative line, timing, and in large measure the audience giving oneself up to an authorial vision.

In my mind VR is a very long way from being a compelling experience that merits the motion sickness. Perhaps VR will someday be a standard mode of story consumption. But in order to get there, VR creators need to appreciate how two of this technology’s pillars, 3D and interactive narrative, never did get out of the gimmick stage.    

  

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