Choose Your Own Virtual Reality, by Christopher Robinson

Ed note: Christopher Robinson is a Seattle-based poet and novelist, with co-author Gavin Kovite, of War of the Encyclopaedists. Following is an essay he wrote about VR for Bright Ideas magazine. While the essay is over nine months old (an eternity in VR time), I still found it timely and insightful, and asked to reprint it here. My thanks to Chris and Bright Ideas for permission.

Choose Your Own Virtual Reality
Agency, immersion, and narrative in Virtual Reality’s manifold future

img_20160818_184121
Christopher Robinson

Under the shade of white United Nations plastic, you sit on a rug, talking with a 12-year old girl—one of 84,000 Syrian refugees in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. This tent is her home, and she has invited you inside. As she speaks to you, you notice the pillows on the floor, the small TV in the corner; as her family cooks dinner, you glance at the reverse UN logo on the wall of the tent; as you sit with her in her classroom, as you watch her older brothers play video games—they crane their heads back to acknowledge you—you have two distinct thoughts. The first: You are acutely aware that your body is sitting on a swiveling cushion inside the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, and that other visitors are watching you crane your own head this way and that like a circumspect bird. The second: You are experiencing a medium of entertainment more visually immersive than anything before it, participating in the first artistic gropings of a truly new kind of cinema.

As you remove the Oculus Rift headset and readjust to your non-virtual reality, you begin to reflect.

If you reflect on the philosophical underpinnings of VR’s immersiveness, go to A

If you reflect on what place VR will occupy in the media landscape of the future, go to B

8

A
The Philosophical Underpinnings of VR’s Immersiveness

Your mind wanders to the earliest cave drawings, which can be thought of as a kind of primordial Virtual Reality: extremely low fidelity recreations of the movements of real antelopes and aurochs outside the cave. (In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog likened the dynamic images of Lascaux to proto-cinema, but the 360-degree, immersive nature of a cave seems to transcend the constraints of a two-dimensional movie.)

In this line of thinking, the photograph and the film, as technologies, can render higher fidelity virtual worlds. But you still find it strange to think of cinema as Virtual Reality; it’s lacking one critical element of fidelity to real experience, an element that would push it beyond some invisible threshold to earn the title of “Virtual Reality.” That element, you realize, is visual agency.

Even in traditional cinema, you, as the viewer, have a form of limited agency. You can focus on one part of the frame or another, you can picture in your mind an event no longer on screen while a new event unfolds before you, or you can imagine an event that has not yet—and may not ever be—presented to you. The visual agency of Virtual Reality, though, is something entirely beyond this: VR gives you the ability to observe any part of the scene in 360 degrees, to focus on one action or character at the exclusion of others. This is something that has existed in video games for a while, but never before, you realize, has it aligned naturally and intuitively with the movements of your own head.

It is this agency that makes VR so transcendentally immersive. But immersiveness doesn’t necessarily correlate with better or worse entertainment. After all, there’s nothing more immersive than reality, and reality is often boring. As you sit in the museum cafe, scribbling down your thoughts, the question arises in your mind: How will this new leap in immersiveness, through added agency, change cinema? The answer depends on how you view the relationship between entertainment and your ability to influence it.

If you don’t believe in agency, go to A.1

If it occurs to you that entertainment is at root the surrender of agency, go to A.2

If it occurs to you that entertainment is at root the sharing of agency, go to A.3

A.1
Free Will Is an Illusion

You were destined to visit this museum in Queens. The deterministic interactions of every particle in the universe dictated you would don an Oculus Rift and meditate on the nature of Virtual Reality. You could not have done otherwise, nor can you escape the inevitable purchase of Christopher Robinson’s collaborative novel, War of the Encyclopaedists, available wherever books are sold. This shameless plug inspires, as it must, not annoyance, but joy, pure joy.

Go to C.1

A.2
Entertainment Is the Surrender of Agency

You look up the etymology and find that “entertain” comes from the Latin, inter– (between) + tenēre (to hold). To entertain, then, is to hold mutually, or rather to hold (the attention of) with consent. To be entertained is to willingly give up a degree of agency over the direction of your thoughts, to be told where to look, what to listen to, what to think about and in what order. It is a continuous consent, however, for at any moment you may revoke this control of your attention if the entertainer fails to replace your own wandering thoughts with something more focused and ordered. What sort of artistic order does the cinematic entertainer offer, you ask yourself? What comes to mind immediately is narrative. It is narrative that holds your attention: event-based narrative, most obviously, but also imagistic and emotional narrative.

In order to be entertained, you surrender your mental agency to the will of the scriptwriter, the director, and the director of photography, who control what you will see, hear, and process for a fixed amount of time. The Oculus Rift, you realize, complicates this equation. The VR filmmakers are giving you back a degree of visual agency traditionally ceded to the director of photography. There is no more frame—you can look anywhere and everywhere—which means the filmmakers have necessarily lost a degree of control over the imagistic narrative. And how much more narrative control will the filmmakers lose with further VR developments, which may enable you not only to look anywhere, but move anywhere within the scene?

If your thoughts drift toward evolutionary speculation about the pleasure of narrative, go to A.2.1

If you begin to wonder how much narrative control directors could reasonably sacrifice, go to A.2.2

A.2.1
Narrative & Natural Selection

To really get at the root of this deep pleasure you feel for narrative, you find yourself focusing on the simplest form of the tradition: the oral and textual story. It has yet to be supplanted by its many mutations and evolutions. The graphic novel, the film, immersive theater, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel: None of these has driven the straightforward written narrative to extinction. Why?

The word “story” comes from “history,” your smart phone tells you, and “history” is “a continuous, systematic narrative of past events,” from the Greek hístōr, “one who knows or sees.” This is the essence of narrative: the systematic relation of a series of past events from one person who knows or has seen to another who does not know, who has not seen.

Could it be, you wonder, that the tendency to enjoy listening to and telling stories conferred a survival benefit on our ancestors? That those bored by narrative tales died off in the Pleistocene?

But it’s more than simply the chronological telling of events, you realize. It’s conflict we are drawn to. It all seems so obvious now: By telling each other stories of conflict, we can learn, without firsthand experience, how to navigate the pitfalls of reality, be they social or natural, an angry relative or a hungry wolf. It is the pleasure of narrative—and yes, you admit this is all speculation—that has allowed humanity to dominate the planet.

Go to C.3

A.2.2
The Limits of Sacrificing Narrative Control

Life is the continual making of choices, large and small. Sit down or stand up, drink a beer or go for a run, talk to Bob as you pass him on your way to the bathroom or ignore Bob, think about your pet cat or rap that Wu-Tang lyric in your head. Right now, you choose to order another macchiato from the museum cafe as you contemplate the limits of narrative sacrifice.

The pleasure of cinematic narrative derives, you suspect, from how it severely limits the choices you must make, at least for a few hours. Reality has such a high cognitive demand, but when you make the choice to sit down in the theatre, to enter a virtual world, from that point forward, the cognitive strain is pleasantly lower.

Traditional cinema sits at the most limited end of the agency spectrum. At the opposite end is the fully realized virtual world, which would have just as many choice options as reality, and thus wouldn’t be any more pleasureable than reality. Somewhere in the middle lie video games. And even goal-less sandbox games—like Second Life, the Sims franchise, or Minecraft—offer a severely limited set of decisions, compared to reality. As the VR filmmaker grants the viewer more and more agency, at some point she must say, enough is enough: Any more agency and I’ll lose control of the narrative.

Scriptwriters can become world-builders, perhaps, but only to a limited extent. To ensure a pleasurable experience for the viewer, the world must be constructed in such a way as to be narratively modular, to appear open and free, though its underlying structure is controlled. And this difficulty scales exponentially with each additional degree of agency granted to the entertainee. We may have reached this limit already. Would a cinematic equivalent of World of Warcraft be entertaining? Could visual agency be the most VR film has to offer?

Go to B.1.2

A.3
Entertainment Is the Sharing of Agency

An entertainer on a desert island is no entertainer at all. There must be a reader, or listener, or viewer who agrees to view. And the creator must accept that her creation will enter the viewer’s mind, knowing full well that it will emerge a changed thing. You think of Homer’s Odyssey, how it likely evolved by passing through the mouths and ears of myriad oral storytellers. Recognizing this truth, that storytelling is a joint venture, your mind leaps in a new direction.

If it leaps outward to thoughts about how visual agency can lead to more powerful cinema, go to A.3.1

If it leaps forward to speculation about what future films with a higher degree of shared agency might look like, go to A.3.2

If it leaps backward to thoughts on the varied higher-agency films you just participated in moments ago in this very museum, go to A.3.3

A.3.1
Visual Agency for More Powerful Cinema

You met that 12-year-old refugee in Chris Milk’s VR film, Clouds Over Sidra. Milk, you know, is a VR evangelist. You saw his TED Talk, where he refers to traditional cinema as “a group of rectangles played in a sequence,” something that hasn’t changed in 100 years. “I want you through the window,” he said. He’s a firm believer that putting the viewer in the scene will allow for a greater degree of empathy. And you are largely convinced. You saw four short films on the Oculus Rift before parking yourself in this cafe. One of them, Herders, placed you in the intimate company of yak herders on the Mongolian plains. You sat close enough to hear the sounds of their chewing, you looked around at their countryside, the tapestries on their tent walls, but you could not interact with them, nor did they acknowledge you. You felt like the ghost of one of their close relatives. You did have empathy for these yak herders, perhaps more than you would have had were you viewing them through the traditional rectangular window of the frame. Clouds Over Sidra sparked more empathy in you still, for the children looked directly at you; it did not feel like the familiar breaking of the fourth wall, where you know the actor is looking into the camera. Because there is no frame, because the world is around you, it felt like they were looking at you. Filmmakers, you know, have long used camera height and location to help align viewer perspective. But here, the height of the camera made you feel at one moment like an adult, with children at your feet, and the next moment like a child yourself, sitting at a desk alongside the other kids; somehow, being inside the frame, as Milk says, made these traditional perspective techniques much more effective. In Clouds Over Sidra, like in Herders, you could not interact with your environment, but you were acknowledged by the children, you were paid attention to. It was less like being a ghost, and more like being a mute invalid, incapable of contributing, but cared for, loved. It’s hard for you to escape the conclusion that Chris Milk is right: Inside the frame yourself, acknowledged by the people there, you feel a part of their world—not a voyeur, but a participant, and it makes you care for their plight in a way the old sequence of rectangles never could.

Go to C.2

A.3.2
Immersive Theatre & Locomotive Agency

The Rising Action-Climax-Denouement model isn’t the only model of storytelling—though it is the most venerable. One alternative leaps out from memory. You once spent three and a half hours in the McKittrick Hotel, witnessing an immersive theater experience called Sleep No More: a loose production of Macbeth with some Hitchcock thrown in to boot. It was quite unlike any other theater experience you’ve had before or since. Four floors of the hotel had been turned into elaborate sets. As an audience member, you were given a creepy white mask and free range to roam through the hotel-turned-stage. The performers moved about, falling in and out of scenes in some non-linear pattern, playing on loop. Twice, an hour apart, you saw Lady Macbeth naked in a bathtub scrubbing the blood from her arms. Other audience members in white masks stood across the room, anonymous, viewing the scene as well. All of you ghosts. The characters who had lost their minds, or had no sanity to begin with (the witches) looked you right in the eye. It was immersive in much the same fashion as your recent experience with films made for the Oculus Rift. But one step further, of course, for in Sleep No More, you had not only visual agency, but locomotive agency. Could this be the future of Virtual Reality?

Your mind circles back to the problem of narrative. In Sleep No More, the narrative was broken up, non-linear, cyclical. This worked because you were familiar with the plot of Macbeth already. Could a VR filmmaker guarantee you a cohesive narrative experience by building a world you’re free to roam, a world with non-linear, cyclical content? You are naturally skeptical. The filmmaker would have to plan out a hundred, perhaps a thousand narrative arc possibilities to ensure you the feeling of agency and a cohesive, satisfying experience.

Perhaps the illusion of choice is all we can hope for. Perhaps the director sits behind a bank of monitors, watching your interactions, your focal points, and she steers the plot one way or another in a branching narrative. Perhaps the director is an algorithm making changes to the film based on your heart rate, pupil dilation, and galvanic skin response.

If you begin to wonder what the theatre of the future might look like, go to B.2.2

If you find yourself longing for the uncomplicated cinema of yesteryear, go to C.3

A.3.3
Participation Fatigue

Aside from the short films made for the Oculus Rift, the museum offered you several other innovations in higher-agency film. You approached the Google Cube, a 6” rubberized cube, where it sat on a pedestal. Projected on the wall behind it was a short film. Picking up the cube, the image on the wall shook, and you realized in less than a second that as you rotated the cube, the image on the wall would rotate as well, revealing five other simultaneous narratives. You held the cube at an angle, viewing three oblique screens at once, their audio tracks blended. Characters moved from one cube face into another. You followed them or explored the six-fold narrative space at your whim, the cubic interface giving you access to, but limiting your simultaneous viewing of, the multiple threads: something between a split-screen and flipping channels in a single frame. The narrative possibilities of the cubic screen intrigued you—the way it allowed you to intuitively navigate its narrative space—but you also suspected that rich, detailed narratives would be difficult to follow (and to create) in cubic space. The technology is perhaps useful for art installations, music videos, but films… you remain skeptical.

You were also taken in by Possibilia, an interactive film by The Daniels, which follows an arguing/reminiscing/screaming/loving couple as they work their way through an endless breakup. Thumbnails at the bottom of the screen allowed you to change the scenery, the camera angle, and often the emotional tone at a whim. The dialogue continued seamlessly. They achieved this, you realize, by filming the scene dozens of times, in different settings, with the same script acted in varied emotional registers. The makers of Possibilia retained narrative control, but granted you visual and emotional agency over the narrative. You wonder what this would look like for a feature length film. One thought: Filming scenes so many times would be prohibitively expensive for longer films. Another: Possibilia was fun to play with, but your control of the emotional tenor was distracting; it made the scenes, well acted and written, less emotively impactful. Creating resonant emotion in film (or literature) is difficult. It takes patience, control, and the slow accumulation of smaller emotional blocks in order to build up to a great catharsis or crushing sadness. Can viewers really be trusted with the difficult task of erecting the emotional scaffolding necessary for a resonant conclusion?

And then there was Pry, an interactive tablet film about PTSD that forced you to manually hold open the character’s eyelids with stretched fingers, giving you agency to flit between his conscious thoughts, a real-time unfolding narrative, and his subconscious. Your agency here was limited to how much time you spent in each of those realms, though you had no control over the emotional arc within each, nor of camera angle or setting. A simple trick, in a sense, but by forcing you to continually manipulate the screen for the narrative to progress, the character’s difficulty working through his PTSD became much more immediate. This of course placed a higher cognitive burden on you. You made it through two chapters, then wandered on. You’re a smart person, but sometimes—often, even—you want to give your brain a rest and let someone else take control. Even reading has a higher cognitive burden than cinema, as you must imagine an unfolding scene based on words alone. Perhaps that explains the popularity of the moving picture.

If you’re feeling tired, go to C.3

If you’re feeling speculative, go to B

geometric shape

B
What Role Will VR Play in the Media Landscape of the Future?

The Oculus Rift, on the eve of commercial release, is the most advanced VR headset to date. You’ve read all about its high resolution OLED display (1080×1200 pixels per eye), its three-axis rotational and positional head tracking, and its integrated HRTF audio (which works with head tracking to make sounds appear to originate from particular points in space). Video games, which already offer the viewer visual agency, have been waiting for years to take advantage of a fluid, well-designed VR headset. With cinema, the technology to film in 360 degrees and capture binaural sound is evolving alongside the Rift and other headsets meant to view immersive VR film. Filmmakers are currently using spherical arrays of GoPro cameras and blending the footage with computer algorithms.

But as advanced as it is, every VR film you’ve seen to date has had a few visual artifacts, errors in the stitching of the images. And the screen resolution of the Oculus Rift, as high as it is, is not so high that you don’t notice the pixels. As the technology improves, these obstacles to full immersion will disappear. But there are other obstacles, practical and physical, inherent in the process of making and viewing films with this technology.

If these obstacles worry you, go to B.1

If you’re optimistic about filmmakers overcoming these obstacles, go to B.2

B.1
The Physical Limitations on VR Filmmaking

You just watched a few short VR films, all of them 10 minutes or less, and even now, in the museum cafe, your neck is a bit sore. How long can you really crane your head around without getting tired? In a feature-length film, would you eventually just settle on looking mostly forward?

Whether you took advantage of the full 360-degree view, you could still experience the “presence” of VR films. But would those films be any good?

You worked on an independent film set once, briefly. It was a small crew. You operated the boom mic. You helped the DP set up the lighting a few times. You became aware of how much work goes into preparing a scene before the camera ever starts rolling. And you can only imagine how much more complex it is for large-scale productions. So, the question arises quite naturally in your mind: If filmmakers are capturing video in 360 degrees, how will they light their scenes? Where will the boom operator stand?

But these are only obstacles for productions that insist on being visually artful, for productions that use live footage.

If you’re thinking, “Well, porn doesn’t have to be artful…,” go to B.1.1

If you’re thinking, “What about CGI?” go to B.1.2

B.1.1
VR and Low Art

If it’s difficult to artfully control the lighting and sound when making a VR film, then perhaps it’s only natural that the films that make the most use of this technology will be the ones that don’t depend on artfulness for their impact. Pornography is the most immediate example. Having consumed your fair share of porn over the years, you realize that artful lighting and sound are often irrelevant to your reaching what you prefer to call the “accumulative moment.” Porn can deliver on its promise without that polish. And if you prefer “naturalism” in porn over polish, the more amateur the production, the better. And of course, pornography has already made POV filming standard using GoPros, and has experimented with multiple camera angles and split screens. VR porn is a logical next step (and is, in fact, well under way). You wouldn’t be surprised if the porn industry adopts VR more widely than even those dedicated to horror or extreme sports.

This doesn’t mean that high-art—or at least high-gloss—VR productions won’t exist. But they’ll likely be rare, simply because of the difficulty of artfully controlling their aesthetic environments, and the scaling complexity of set design and actor blocking in 360 degrees.

Go to C.3

B.1.2
CGI Is the Future of VR Cinema

Visual agency is only the beginning, you realize. As soon as you have it, you want to move! That’s the difficult thing about granting the viewer “presence” in the film. It’s never enough.

But how can filmmakers offer the viewer the ability to move through a scene? With filmed scenarios, the DP would need to move the 360-degree-facing camera rig through every possible location, and even then that would limit the film to static locations. CGI is the only practical answer.

You sip your macchiato—it’s empty, damn—and think back to Evolution of Verse, Chris Milk’s CGI VR film you just experienced. It was dazzling, immersive, and surreal. You found yourself floating over a lake, the clouds moving at time-lapse speed above you, while a locomotive chugged at the lake’s edge moving at expected-locomotive speed; the disjunct with the pace of the clouds created a sense of unreality which became surreality when the locomotive plowed into the water, straight at you, disintegrating into a flock of birds, which became colored streamers. Suddenly, you were flying, and though you could still sense gravity weighing your body down to the swiveling cushion in the museum, your breath caught in your throat. It was exhilarating. The surreal, you realized, is not incompatible with immersive emotional experience. This is good news for VR cinema, for CGI is still stuck in the uncanny valley. The illusion of presence need not be complete in order to be viscerally affecting.

But if VR cinema happens largely through CGI, what separates it from the realm of video games? And if the two merge, are we dealing with something dangerous?

If you meditate on the fundamental differences between cinema and video games, go to B.1.2.1

If you fear the lure of the Ultimate Entertainment, go to B.1.2.2

B.1.2.1
Narrative Film vs. Interactive Gaming

You grew up on video games. You remember the days when story was little more than: “Our princess is in another castle!” But games became more narrative as they grew up alongside you. Soon enough, cinematic cut scenes punctuated the longer periods of interactive game play. Some games, like Metal Gear Solid 4, had half-hour long cut scenes. But the games that came next began making the transition from cinematic content to interactive content more fluid as in-game rendering became prettier. Often, these days, as a player, you never leave the interactive mode; the action merely dies down, non-player characters talk and move, and you follow them around the room in a cinematic fashion, soaking up plot content—all while retaining the visual and locomotive agency of standard gameplay. But these games still feel very much like games to you, not like films.

How will we distinguish the two? You try to think of an easy test. How about this: Are you a viewer or an actor? Can you affect the plot? If you can’t, but can merely choose what to observe—a mobile ghost, in other words—then you’re in a VR film. And if you can, you’re in a video game. Does this test hold water? Not quite, you realize. Games require skill. The operative question that occurs to you: Can you “lose?” If not, it’s not a game.

That’s what really differentiates the high-agency experience of playing a video-game from watching a film. One offers you the thrill of present peril and problem solving, the other offers the enchantment of narrated conflict.

If you begin to wonder what is so enchanting about narrative conflict, go back to A.2.1

If you begin to wonder what happens when these two art forms merge, go to C.2

B.1.2.2
The Ultimate Entertainment

You’ve had plenty of debates over the years about the differing capabilities of various art forms. Music, you’ve argued, is best at irrationally mainlining emotion: Using only structured abstract sounds, it can affect you immediately and deeply. This ability comes at the cost of its being a poor information carrier when compared with text, which is built to convey information, allowing for much more nuanced and complex emotional content: the sort you get by following a character through hundreds of pages of a novel. Therefore is cinema—combining music, literature, and visual art into one—not already the ultimate artform?

Ah, but then there are video games, which throughout most of their history have been derided as artless. But you know that’s not true. And even if it were, the potential for transcendence is there. Video games can do all that cinema does, with the added element of interaction. As video games become more cinematic, as VR cinema grants the viewer more agency, there will surely be missteps. But won’t this process eventually hone in on the ideal balance between agency and narrative? Will we finally arrive at the perfect, most powerful art form?

David Foster Wallace speculated in Infinite Jest (one of your favorite novels) about a piece of entertainment so enthralling that anyone viewing it would not be able to escape. Instead, they would sit before it drooling until they died of starvation. This was a satire on our over-fed entertainment culture, but perhaps there’s a real danger, when we do close in on the ideal art form, that reality may not be able to sufficiently compete with the virtual.

Go to C.2

B.2
Limitations, Shmimitations

Where will filmmakers put their lights and boom operators in a scene shot with a 360-degree camera rig? Pshaw! We’ll soon overcome these obstacles with CGI rendering and algorithmic stitching, shooting one 180-degree hemisphere at a time and fusing them in post. (In fact, this is already happening.)

When you first saw The Matrix in 1999, the seemingly impossible camera movements blew your mind. By now, it’s commonplace for the camera in a live action film to appear to follow an object out a window, to fly through a keyhole, or even an eye. VR filmmakers, therefore, will be able to light and mic their scenes with ease by simply erasing the equipment digitally. In fact, with seamless CGI modification, it may also prove simple—for those with the right software and technical skill—to create a filmed environment that the viewer can actually move through, affording them not just visual, but locomotive agency.

As for the difficulties of neck strain, several potential ergonomic advancements occur to you. Perhaps a suggestive drift to the view, via the spinning chair you’re in, will allow you to turn without arching your neck backward. Or maybe the chair turns to meet your gaze if your neck rotation passes a certain threshold?

Handling the difficulty of set design and actor blocking is trickier. With no one controlling the frame of the shot, the director of photography will largely be out of a job—unless that role is reconceptualized. The name strikes you out of the blue: the Suggestor of Photography. Interesting and evocative viewing angles and visual compositions will still be employed in VR film, but more the way they are employed in architecture. The Romans had this down ages ago, using the design of the physical space to guide the viewer through it, offering them pleasant lines of sight—a fountain at the end of corridor, a statue visible through a window. In this fashion, the Suggestor of Photography can work with the set designer and Director to structure the scene and the blocking in such a way as to suggest to the viewer certain positions and angles from which to take in the scene. This will allow the viewer full visual and positional agency while also giving the filmmakers a high expectation of conveying artful visual composition. But this is only the beginning, you realize. These obstacles will be overcome and new ones will arise. Theatres will evolve or perhaps disappear. And what of the anxieties of being a VR viewer?

If you’re wondering about the logical endpoint of this technology, go to B.2.1

If you’re wondering what the VR theatre of the future might look like, go to B.2.2

If you’re prone to Fear of Missing Out… go to B.2.3

B.2.1
You Think That’s Air You’re Breathing?

Wake up, Neo…

Go to C.1

B.2.2
The Theatre of the Future

It’s not just the immediacy of opening night or the size of the screen that draws you to the theatre. It’s the other viewers. Watching a film in a cineplex is a large-scale communal experience. Watching a film on your laptop is not. At the theatre, you laugh as a group—and laughter engenders laughter. Comedies become funnier with a vocal audience. Live sitcoms have known this forever (hence the laugh track). But it works the same with drama, with suspense. A character’s onscreen death is all the more horrifying when your gasp is part of a larger collective gasp. These are joys that cinema delivers which will necessarily disappear if VR remains a solitary experience. As far as you can tell, there are two ways to avoid this.

Theatres may disappear, and the feeling of mutual audienceship could be created digitally, through the internet. In the fashion of the immersive play, Sleep No More, you could perhaps see the gauzy, ghostly outlines of other audience members in the VR film, see where they’re standing, where they’re viewing the scene from. Or perhaps your own audible laughter and gasping could be shared through the net with others currently watching the film.

Or perhaps as VR technology strives for further levels of immersion, adding in vibrational elements—smells, even—the rigs will become so complex that most people won’t be able to fit them in their homes. The theatre may be a large room with hundreds of VR pods, ready to simulate everything from acceleration to wind-chill. The experience of seeing a VR film in such a space would be both incredibly immersive and yet communal. You suspect there’s something irreplaceable about hearing your neighbor’s laughter, not piped through a headset from across the country, but the laughter, or shock, of the person a few feet away from you.

Go to C.3

B.2.3
FOMO

As a child, you played by the rules and followed the bifurcating paths in Choose Your Own Adventure novels. But you made sure, after reaching each end page, to methodically go back and traverse the plots you didn’t take at first, ensuring you would experience every last page of that pulp adventure multiverse. You were never satisfied with the ending you first arrived at, even if it turned out to be best of all possible outcomes. Possibility became a burden, an anxiety. And this has been your exact experience in these immersive VR films. You are both transfixed by the “presence” of being in the world of the characters, and utterly distracted by the fear that something amazing, or notable, or merely different is happening right behind you! This is not a problem in traditional cinema, for there, you have little visual agency. Nor is it a problem in reality. But reality, unlike film, is not crafted with intent. That’s the source of the anxiety you cannot escape: Your choice to look here is also a choice not to look there, and so the constant fear that you are continually missing things specifically created for your viewing pleasure. It’s an inherent problem that accompanies “presence.” You wonder if, after the novelty wears off, this anxiety might lead you to forget VR cinema. But as the VR filmmakers perfect the balance between agency and narrative control, honing in on the ideal form of entertainment, as your friends flock to the newest VR masterpiece, will the fear of missing out pull you back in?

If you fear missing out on the ultimate entertainment, go back to B.1.2.2

If the anxiety’s too much, go to C.1

12

C
Conclusions

C.1
“The Early Speculators,” a VR Documentary

You remove your headset and pluck the nerve-stimulators from your fingertips. You take a breath and look out your window at a passing hover-taxi. So, that’s what the early days of VR cinema were like. People went to museums to view short films? They still read things on paper? The people of 2015, if only they knew…

C.2
The Metaverse

As you leave the museum, you reflect that the most powerful technologies are necessarily dangerous. For all the empathy that immersive Virtual Reality may engender in us, and despite the new heights of artistic craft it will allow our brightest filmmakers, it will also offer us an alternative to reality that may be difficult—if not impossible—to resist. The Metaverse is inevitable. We are building it now: that persistent virtual world shared by anyone who can afford access, that space where we adopt whichever avatars please us most, escaping the body-image and gender- and racial-identity issues that have plagued our fleshy real-world society. The best case scenario, you realize, is that some small percentage of the population will withdraw from society to spend more and more time in this virtual world, emerging only to eat and defecate (if even that). The worst case scenario: one by one we upload to the Matrix, leading to the biological extinction of humanity—which, you admit, is a rather negative way to frame it. The alternative perspective is that Virtual Reality will lead to digital immortality, a massive server containing our souls recontextualized as ones and zeroes. And this is why VR excites you: You can’t decide whether to fear it or embrace it.

C.3
This is Not the Death of Film

The museum is closing and you’ve got a train to catch. Tonight is date night. You and your sweetheart are going out to the movies. You can taste the popcorn now, you can hear the sound of your straw sliding through the plastic lid on your magnificent and ridiculous volume of Diet Coke. As much as you were startled by the “presence” of these fledgling VR films, you find yourself longing for the narrative embrace of good old traditional cinema. You’ve been thinking hard all day. You need to relax, you need a good director to steer your eyes and your thoughts for a few hours. It only takes a little trust. And offering that trust, you realize, is something you value. It’s the same sort of trust you offer your partner each night when you fall asleep. You become so vulnerable when you give up your agency, but in exchange you are granted a transcendent freedom: the freedom from thought, the freedom to dream. For that’s what makes cinema, that venerable sequence of rectangles, so enjoyable. As in a dream, there is no cognitive burden to figure out what happens next, to choose where to look. It’s taken care of. You need only raise your eyelids.