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VR For Awareness Takes Over Tribeca Film Festival

This year’s festival features a huge selection of immersive experiences spotlighting some of the world’s most pressing issues.

So far, the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival has been a chaotic whirlwind of innovative filmmaking, groundbreaking immersive entertainment and masterful storytelling. However the most impressive part of the event has to be the increasingly high amount of projects highlighting important social, environmental and health-related issues through creative forms of interactive public awareness.

Tribeca Immersive’s Virtual Arcade in particular hosts a striking amount of important topics that utilize VR technology to impact audiences and help them better empathize with those affected. This year’s Tribeca Immersive is home to 30 unique VR experiences to explore and enjoy.

Here are just a handful of the festivals most socially impactful VR projects:

THE PROTECTORS: WALK IN THE RANGER’S SHOES

Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Protectors: Walk In The Ranger’s Shoes is a jarring 360-degree VR experience following a day in the life of several trained Garamba National Park rangers. The last line of defense in a seemingly endless struggle to prevent the extinction of African elephants at the hands of ivory-hungry poachers, these selfless heroes willingly risk their lives on a daily basis to protect these majestic creatures at any cost. The 8-minute experience uses the Samsung Gear VR to give you an in depth, and at times unsettling look into the increasingly hostile situation.

Where standard documentary videos are really only able to convey information with limited emotional effect, this VR experience is able to hit audiences on a more intense emotional level. At one point in the experience you emerge from thick African brush and are confronted with a slain elephant stripped of its horns and decaying in the blaring sun. I’ve seen my fair share of graphic documentary footage, but none that have hit me as hard as the VR video featured in this. A captivating topic, impressive 360-degree footage and a beautifully-designed booth make this one of the coolest, as well as important VR exhibits at Tribeca this year.

BLACKOUT

Arguably the most physically appealing exhibit at the festival, Blackout is an “ongoing participatory, volumetric VR project” that spotlights an eclectic rotating cast of real NYC humans of varying perspectives and experiences. After entering a minimalistic reconstruction of a NYC subway car, users place on a headset and enter a VR experience mapped directly over the real-life objects of the fake train. The virtual train bench was layered over the one in real life, meaning I was able to walk over and actually sit on it. That tall pole located near the doors? Yep, I could reach out and hold on to that too.

However the real magic came from the various souls who inhabited my train. Walking around I could see several characters going about their business, each based off of real people captured for the especially for this experience. Turning my gaze to a hologram-like figure activated an audio testimonial read from that particular person. The lights dimmed and a spotlight formed over the selected subject, giving me an in-depth look into their struggles and ambitions. Each viewing features a new cast of interesting “straphangers,” which means every experience is different.

The eye-opening interactive project does a spectacular job of capturing the natural movements of its crowd-sourced subjects thanks in large part to the technology behind DepthKit. Much like the Lytro Immerge system used to capture the Hallelujah musical experience which also premiered at Tribeca, DepthKit is an intuitive tool that uses light field technology to capture real objects/people in three dimensions. Where Lytro uses expensive camera equipment and rendering software to appease professional filmmakers, DepthKit prides itself in being a more accessible and inexpensive option in an attempt to cater to a wider audience. They accomplish this by replacing expensive professional equipment with accessible Microsoft Kinect sensors and standard DSLR cameras.

I was actually lucky enough to tour their capture studio at Tribeca. The impressive green screen cube has been used all week to capture a constant stream of new NYC subjects for festival-goers to experience throughout Tribeca. Where many of the VR exhibits present at the event have been tested and planned weeks in advance, the team behind Blackout is committed to showing just how fast they are able to record and implement new characters on the fly.

TESTIMONY

Sexual assault is an incredibly sensitive topic that can, quite frankly, be difficult for most to discuss. Its because of reasons like this that the fragile subject is often misunderstood or ignored completely. It’s a hot-button issue that’s been gaining more attention than ever thanks to recent high-profile cases involving Brock Turner, Bill Cosby and most recently Bill O’Reilley. These recent incidents have opened a floodgate of public concern, making Testimony perhaps one of the most important pieces of content at Tribeca.

Lasting a total of 40 minutes, Testimony combines the Samsung Gear VR with gazed-based technology to deliver a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ sort of experience. Upon entering the interactive documentary you are immediately surrounded by a handful of floating bubbles, each featuring a real victim of some form of sexual assault. By making prolonged eye-contact with one of the hovering figures you activate a powerful testimonial read by the actual subject. It’s an incredibly insightful journey that does a wonderful job of conveying the severity of this uneasy topic.

Maybe it’s the isolation VR provides, but I felt more comfortable learning more about this problem than I ever have before. VR could perhaps be the perfect medium to discuss not only sexual assaults, but many other sensitive topics as well.

UNREST

Unrest is a 10 minute interactive experience that allows users to step into the shoes of someone suffering from chronic illness/disability and share their struggle with fatigue, pain and neurosensory symptoms. Based on a documentary film of the same name, the VR rendition does a fantastic job of translating these symptoms by placing the user in a near exact situation.

During my viewing I actually laid down on a real bed, wearing an Oculus Rift headset. From there I was transported to a cozy bedroom scattered with different items that, when selected via the Oculus Touch controllers, would trigger a specific memory or story from a person actually battling the difficult conditions. Much like the person suffering from these disabilities I wasn’t able to leave my bed, meaning my only form of exploration was by simply looking around. The finale is something special too. No spoilers.

It was a sobering adventure that accurately portrayed the difficulties of chronic illness and how the strong people inflicted with such burdens manage to cope. This is definitely a must-try for anyone looking for a more detailed look into this incredibly complex world of neurosensory behavior.

BECOMING HOMELESS: A HUMAN EXPERIENCE

In an attempt to recreate the harsh realities of homelessness, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab developed a VR experience that simulates the hardships of losing your home and living on the streets. Coming in at about 10 minutes, Becoming Homeless is an immersive first-person journey that evokes a genuine sense of empathy towards those living on the streets by having users take the role of an unemployed resident being evicted from his/her home.

The experience starts with you selecting certain items in your apartment to pawn for rent money. It starts off pretty easy, allowing you to select smaller items such as paintings and other collectibles. Things get a little tricky when you’re forced to start choosing more expensive items such as your phone, TV and laptop. This made all the more frustrating thanks to the landlord constantly knocking on your door in search of your late rent.

Eventually things become just too much to handle and you’re forced to live out of your car. As you attempt to get some sleep in your new mobile residence, you’re approached by a police officer claiming that new laws prohibit civilians from sleeping in their car on the side of the road. Unsurprisingly, you’re ticketed for your violation. So now the only way to pay off the bill and support yourself is to, you guessed it, sell your ride.

Finally you find yourself seeking warmth and protection on the local bus. At this point in the experience you’re tasked with protecting your last remaining possessions while simultaneously defending yourself from a weird traveler with an apparent hatred towards the homeless. Keeping your eye on the violent stranger is the only way to keep him at bay. The same goes for protecting your backpack, which means you’ll have to constantly keep an eye on both to ‘win.’ It was a stressful moment that did an excellent job of recreating the constant guard many homeless have to maintain to simply stay safe.

Overall Tribeca has surprised and delighted with its surplus of socially impactful VR experiences. There’s no doubt in my mind that 2018 will feature an even more impressive amount of VR projects for awareness.

For more info on these stellar works of art and the other amazing exhibits, visit the official Tribeca Film Festival website.

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