What’s virtual reality without a headset?

[Headset-based VR is becoming a ‘hot’ medium in Marshall McLuhan’s use of the term, but as discussed in this story from The Verge (which has more pictures), it’s not the only, or necessarily the most effective, way to evoke intense presence illusions. –Matthew]

'Famous Deaths' installation at Tribeca Film Festival

[Image: Person being helped into the Famous Deaths installation at the Tribeca Film Festival.]

What’s virtual reality without a headset?

Tribeca Film Festival installations push our definitions of VR

By Adi Robertson
on April 21, 2016

My first thought, when I see someone roll into the Famous Deaths morgue freezer, is I’m sure glad they don’t lock you in. It’s not until I’m about to try it out myself that I realize they actually do.

Famous Deaths is one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s most morally ambiguous, potentially offensive, and arrestingly weird interactive installations. Originally exhibited in Amsterdam, it’s a pair of stainless steel boxes plugged into a system of speakers and scent tubes. Each freezer sports a tiny digital display: JFK or Whitney Houston, for example, with an indication that the experience is “cooling” or “ready,” respectively. (Though they’re not present, there are also simulations for Princess Diana and Muammar Gaddafi.) Inside, participants experience the last four minutes of a subject’s life through a combination of sound, smell, and temperature. In a show that features dozens of virtual reality experiences, Famous Deaths isn’t VR, at least not in the usual sense of the term. But questions about what this is cut to the heart of what “VR” even means.

Due to a small cascade of last-minute technical problems, Famous Deaths sits empty for the first few hours of the Tribeca Film Institute’s weekend “Interactive Playground.” When it finally opens, I volunteer immediately — partly because it reminds me of a similarly morbid VR art project from William Gibson’s Spook Country, and partly because it involves a real vulnerability that’s hard to find in a headset. My mind has long since accepted that stepping off a virtual cliff isn’t really falling, but the coffin-sized space one of the creators slides me into is very real and very small.

The TFI Interactive gallery is lit like a nightclub, but inside the box, it’s so dark that I can’t tell when my eyes are open. Slowly, the acrid tang of artificial sweetness wafts inside, and sounds fade in somewhere behind my head. If I’d gotten JFK’s freezer, I’d have a clear mental picture to go with it all. But I’ve ended up with Whitney Houston, and all I can do is piece together individual moments in the soundscape: the crunch of what sounds like cereal, the mutter of a voice, the lap of water. The freezer heats like a warm bath, and I feel almost disembodied. Then the door at my feet opens, the light reappears, and I push myself out.

There’s no headset involved here. It’s more transportive without one — and, though the project is inherently creepy, a little more tasteful without it, too. Imagining Famous Deaths on a Rift or Vive, I immediately think of how I’d see the pixels and be distracted by the weight on my face, how I’d look for stitching lines on a live-action video or texture flaws in a rendered environment — how I’d keep turning my head to make sure nothing was going on behind me.

At a time when we’re talking about headsets as a revolutionary and futuristic way of experiencing the world, where does something like Famous Deaths fit in? To co-creator Marcel van Brakel, it’s just a different VR style. “We don’t use any image, but it’s still a kind of virtual experience and first-person experience,” he says. “You become Whitney Houston for a moment, and forget that you are someone else. That’s very similar, I think, to a VR experience, where you forget where you are and that it’s not real.”

This complicates the current story of VR: that with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR, and Google Cardboard, we’ve finally discovered the ultimate way to immerse people in other worlds. All the experiences at Tribeca are simulated, but some of the most immersive ones are those that explicitly reject headsets.

Quinn, for example, is essentially a short escape-the-room game set in a walled-off corner of the Tribeca Interactive gallery. Two participants are handed smartphones that can scan QR codes and receive instructions, and they get a few minutes to boot up and troubleshoot a rogue AI, working around each other in a shoebox-sized space. It’s a little haphazard and buggy: my scanner periodically stops working, and the experience is over the moment I think it’s getting started. Even so, there’s a great immediacy to frantically fitting real plugs into computer sockets, inches away from another human being.

Quinn creator Shaun Axani originally imagined making the project in virtual reality. “As I went through ideating on it and workshopping on it, I was just kind of like — I don’t think this is what fits best. I think I want it to be physical and more performative,” he says. He’s also considered adding augmented reality elements. But as with Famous Deaths, the technology it would take to add traditional AR and VR is still uncomfortable and distracting. As amazing as holograms would be in an escape-the-room game, the smartphone does a better job of letting me forget I’m not really an AI expert in a life-or-death situation.

If the ultimate goal of VR is to simulate being in another place, there’s no single, prescribed technology for doing it. For decades, “virtual reality” and similar terms have been used to describe anything that confounds our eyes and ears, including room-scale projected images and 3D graphics on a computer screen. What’s great about headsets is that they make images that envelop your entire field of view, they can be used in fairly small spaces, and they can deliver an infinite number of different experiences to millions of people with almost no work on the part of the wearer. But they’re not the only option. “If we do our jobs right in trying to create this narrative, you’re brought into this other space and this other world,” says Axani. “Right now, people are just very obsessed with head-mounted displays.”

For the foreseeable future, headsets are synonymous with virtual reality, and the “virtual reality” label turns an everyday interactive or immersive installation into part of a zeitgeist. For all the great projects that have come out of this newly revitalized medium, there’s a hint of artistic constraint in it, too.

One floor below the Tribeca Interactive Playground sits the Storyscapes exhibit, a similar new media showcase. It’s not all virtual reality, but the majority of experiences have a VR component — including The Turning Forest, a fairytale originally set in a purely sonic kind of virtual world. Like Famous Deaths, The Turning Forest uses spatial audio to project startlingly realistic sound, creating the impression of leaves, water, and an initially menacing creature that ultimately takes participants on a magical journey.

Initially, this was the whole concept, developed as part of the BBC Audio Research Partnership. But as the creators realized the promise of virtual reality, it evolved into a brightly animated Oculus Rift experience. The visuals, directed by Assent creator Oscar Raby, are undeniably lovely in their own right. Still, it feels like the wrong choice. When I close my eyes, The Turning Forest has an air of serene otherworldliness, inviting me to lose myself in the narration and environment. When I open them, it’s still a competently told story. But the mystery — the pleasure of connecting my own mental pictures to the sound — is gone. It’s enough to make me wonder if my elementary school teachers had a point when they claimed TV stunted the imagination: for all the active possibilities VR allows, filling in every detail of an experience nudges me into personal creative passivity. I keep my eyes closed for most of the piece.

It can be frustrating to wade through a crowd of people just to spend a few minutes in another world. And while (hopefully) everyone will get access to sophisticated VR headsets at some point, there will never be an escape-the-room game or a sensory deprivation box in every home. Still, these events and experiences offer an opportunity to explore the full breadth of simulated reality — to remember that there’s more to the world than seeing, that suggestion can be more powerful than depiction, and that sometimes, our physical world can produce the most convincing illusions of all.

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