Reviewing Virtual Reality at SIFF, Zach Blachon

Reviewing Virtual Reality at SIFF, Zach Blachon

Welcome to Year 1, the future is upon us.

2016 marks the year virtual reality (VR) started giving actual reality a run for it’s money.  The technology for entering these unexplored territories has become accessible to anyone with a smartphone and $15 . Google is a shepherd the into the field of VR that many people have followed. Google has designed a DIY VR goggle that works with a smartphone and YouTube. Innovative creators are developing new content everyday.  Cameras like the Ricoh Theta and 3D game engines like Unity allow the uninitiated to jump head first into creating immersive media. It’s important to talk about the nuances between all the different varieties of this emerging medium.


SIFF acquired lease for Cap Hill's Egyptian Theatre back in 2014, image courtesy of
SIFF acquired lease for Cap Hill’s Egyptian Theatre back in 2014, image courtesy of

A virtual reality experience creates a psychological connection between a human and an artificial world. That content can be considered immersive. Spherical video is a popular form of immersive media.  A video shot on a special constructed rig with cameras pointing in all direction to record a 360 degree field of view will position a viewer as the center of the world.  A world the viewer cannot interact with, but persist within as only a passive observer.  VR works the same way as spherical video in the sense that it places the user in the middle of the scene. But the user’s body is detected by sensors in the real world to create a sense of presences within the virtual one. In VR the user can interact with the world in around them. There is the potential for movement within the virtual space gives a more immersive experience. AR or augmented reality adds a layer of electronic interface onto the real world.  Google Glass is an example of an AR device.  As of today it is very easy to view spherical videos over the YouTube app a smartphone, and a viewer like Cardboard, but fully immersive VR still takes a ton of computer processing power and is still economically unavailable to the majority of people. The VR community is growing rapidly and industry showcases of the technology happen in major metropolitan cities around the world. Film festivals have begun creating dedicated programs devoted to VR.


The Seattle International Film Festival is one of the many film festivals around the world that has programmed virtual reality exhibitions and industry panels. The weekend of June 3-5 was the inaugural SIFFx, the virtual themed festival within the actual festival. Grandmother of VR and immersive journalist Nonny de la Peña, was the keynote speaker on Saturday.  De la Peña is the creator of immersive journalism, a form of journalism that has the potential to bring the viewer’s consciousness into the story. A sample of her works were on display at the Nonny de la Peña pavilion at SIFFx, along with an exhibition on the history of VR.  Hunger in Los Angeles (2012) put the viewer at a food bank line in Los Angeles. A man collapses from a seizure in line and no one goes to help him. This is a powerful story in real life, it is only enhanced by being told in VR. The story takes place in  a 3D generated environment with blocky characters, but with enough suspension of disbelief, a connection can be made. The audio is taken directly from the real life line in LA where the story happened. Also at SIFFx was Project Syria (2014), which transports the viewer to war torn Syria, and refugee camps in Europe. Kiya (2015) tells the story of a family affected by domestic violence.  Each story is effective in producing an empathetic response in the viewer by creating a believable audio/visual environment, and taking aspects of the real life event and incorporating them into the artificial world.  Nonny de la Peña continues to break new ground within the medium.

still from a Nonny immersive journalism experience, USC photo
courtesy of USC photo

If de la Peña is the grandmother of VR, the grandfather is undeniable Tom Furness. Furness was also present at SIFFx, and gave a very insightful panel on his work in the field. Furness began developing the first VR systems in the 60s for the Air Force. His work focused mostly on virtualizing fighter jet cockpits. Today Professor Furness works with a message of peace at the University of Washington’s HITLab. The Human Interface Technology Lab is the leading academic institution pioneering the field of VR.  Furness is also the founder of the Virtual World Society (VWS)  which is attempting to connect communities across the world via the technical means of VR.  The VWS’s flashy vision statement from their website goes: “To ignite next-generation dreams by unlocking and linking minds to solve future global challenges through the power of virtual worlds.” The founders have recognized the powerful experiential qualities of VR, and believe that it can be used to connect diverse communities separated by physical space.


photo by Matt Black/Seattle Refined
photo by Matt Black/Seattle Refined

There is a potential to VR that is immense, and with the advancements of technology in recent years; humanity is standing at the precipice of a great unknown. The virtual levees have broken and a whole generation of creators is being born. With these lofty statements of world peace and connectivity it must be mentioned that with great power comes great responsibility.  A virtual world can create in the human viewer a strong emotional connection to the stories within. The viewer must be critical to the message behind the world. When in VR, be extremely critical of what you see. What VR is great for is transporting the user into situations they would never normally find themselves in.  A virtual experience is meant to change how the viewer perceives actual reality. Once the viewer takes the goggles off and returns to reality, their goal should be to continue learning about the context the virtual world was created within and represents.


This is Year 1 and it’s only June, let’s just hope we can make it to Year 2.



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