VR at the Tribeca Film Festival is Creating Empathy

The Tribeca Film Festival is a special time where New York City becomes an east coast Hollywood, with movie premiers and the associated acclaim that comes with them. It started in 2002 and has been the home of many movie premieres for the past 15 years. Filmmakers young and old, inexperienced and veterans of the industry, showcase their latest movies here.

In 2016, the Tribeca Film Festival became the home for a new type of clientele. Filmmakers and innovators using virtual reality to create their visions were welcomed for the first time. Tribeca hosted a new pavilion dedicated to sharing VR experiences with the public. This year, the Tribeca Immersive Virtual Arcade is hosting 30 new VR experiences.

Courtesy of Simon Jones

Virtual Reality is a concept that has been around for decades and the technology has largely remained the same. Because VR is about creating an artificial environment a user can interact with, the technology has leaned heavily on using external peripherals to do so. In its early days, headsets were used to project both images and sound directly into a person’s senses.

The big breakthrough in the past few years was motion control. Combining headsets with gyroscopic mapping allows the movement of the users to be mapped right into the computerized environment. This adds a level of depth and realism to VR experiences and opens up the possibilities to a new level of immersion.

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival once again hosted 30 new movies and virtual experiences in its Virtual Arcade. From April 18th to the 23rd, lucky ticket holders were allowed on the floor to explore the latest in the VR medium. Many of the exhibitionists hold a background in film and they use headsets and motion controls to tell stories that otherwise can’t be told.

“A phrase that gets tossed around a lot is that VR is the ultimate empathy machine,” says Alex Gamble, editor for Here Be Dragons, one of the VR production studios involved with the festival.  “You can be placed in the middle of the forest hunting for poachers. You can walk around inside a concentration camp while a survivor laments his history beside you.”

A major focus of many of the 2017 immersive experiences was putting yourself in the shoes of someone less fortunate. Here Be Dragons has “The Last Goodbye,” a film that follows a Holocaust survivor through the remains of the concentration camp he was held in. “Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience,” from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, gives you a glimpse of what life is like living on the streets. The goal is not to create titillating experiences at the expense of those in less fortunate situations but to, as Gamble said, create an empathic space.

On a different note, Milica Zec’s “Tree,” literally turns you into a tree, allowing you to grow from a seed into a fully developed giant.

While it can still be considered a niche market, events like the Tribeca Film Festival help the public see the artistic and academic possibilities of the form. “At this present time, the tech is growing to be more accessible and immersive while people are learning how to tell stories in these spaces,” says Gamble. “These are just baby steps, but given time, it will have a massive day-to-day influence in our lives.”