Virtually possible

Where I talk about the magical world of virtual reality that brings everything within our grasp

There are times when it takes a while for the true significance of an experience to dawn on you. Very rarely though, you realise that you’re witnessing something extraordinary. You know that the world as you know it has just changed forever. Earlier this week, when a friend lent me his Samsung Gear VR, a virtual reality headset, I had the latter experience. I saw, no scratch that, met a brachiosaurus in a forest.

The long-necked dinosaur sat a few yards ahead and eventually got up to take a sniff at me — its nostril flaring near mine. I backed away and my friend must have had quite a laugh to see me, headset and all, almost falling off my chair in fear. The dinosaur then craned its neck to grab a few leaves off a nearby tree, causing some of them to drop around me. As it walked away, it languidly swished its tail, without regard to how dangerously close my face was to getting hit. This time, I leaned back, and… fell off my chair.

I removed the headset, and struggled to close my mouth, which remained agape in wonder. If you’re unfamiliar with the VR experience, nobody, not the best writer in the whole world, could make you comprehend the depth of the immersion. There is no other way to put it, except to say, you are there. My first instinct was the realisation that this is going to change everything — gaming, travel, education, and most definitely, cinema.

Fascinatingly, 2016 is already being dubbed as the year of virtual reality, and it’s not hard to see why. Corporate giants like Facebook and Google have invested heavily in the field, and options ranging from Google Cardboard to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have flooded the market. Millions of units are flying off the shelves in countries like China, with film production houses also wisening up to all the development.

In fact, earlier this year, Amsterdam saw the opening of the world’s first virtual reality cinema theatre, and now Toronto is also set to follow suit. Oculus Rift has, meanwhile, launched its very own story studio to encourage filmmakers to write scripts for VR films, and quite a few, including Spike Jonze (who made Her) are enthused by the technology. Production studios have jumped in too, and have begun releasing 360-degree VR experiences related to their films, including Wild and The Avengers.

We are on the cusp of a monumental transition. It’s bigger than we have imagined, and it’s arrived faster than we have expected. Artists and corporations across the world are in the process of creating thousands of new experiences for the medium. I say ‘experiences’, not ‘films’, as it’s yet murky how a scripted narrative will function in the medium. Say, if you were sitting by the side of Simbu and Trisha in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’s climax, how would you react? Could you remain undistracted by your presence in their setting? Would you care enough for their conversation or would you be tempted to look away — say, at the ground or at the sky?

Spike Jonze, however, has shown that the VR experience can be very moving. Last year, he released a video of an anti-police-brutality protest at Manhattan, and those who were part of it were so moved that they reportedly broke down into tears.

The technology’s immediate appeal is evidently in horror. A popular short film has a train heading straight at you, and just as you brace for impact, it explodes into a thousand butterflies near your face. Or imagine watching the VR version of The Conjuring. You won’t just be seeing Lorraine Warren in the presence of a malignant spirit, but you’ll be in the room with her. VR is targeted mainly at home users for the moment, and is still in its nascent stages. But the applications are mind-boggling. When seeing Spike Jonze’ Her, I wondered how long it’d take before we all get so immersed in fantasy that it seems to make up for the perceived imperfections of reality. Well, for good or for bad, it appears that we won’t have to wait long at all.

This column was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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