The future long promised by creators of science fiction finally seems to be upon us. Tesla head Elon Musk not only believes that humanity actually exists inside a video game, but he also has grand plans for the colonisation of Mars. Newer versions of driverless vehicles are being tested every other day. The fields of robotics and artificial intelligence are in a constant state of innovation. And Virtual Reality, or VR technology, which will seamlessly blend the real and the fictional, seems to have finally become possible.
In an overcrowded VR market, multiple devices are being simultaneously developed. Technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Sony are jostling to gain an early advantage. Not only is the technology seeping into advertising, journalism, art and gaming, it is also being seen as something that could potentially revolutionise the way movies are made and seen.
Several VR projects are in the pipeline. Lucasfilm is reportedly making an immersive film about Darth Vader, while Stephen Spielberg, despite showing scepticism towards the technology, is said to be working on a family-oriented VR project. This global fascination with the futuristic technology has permeated to India as well.
At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival in September, filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Culture Lab premiered Cost of Coal, a five-minute non-fiction short on coal mining, billed as “India’s first VR documentary”. In suburban Mumbai, independent filmmaker Pranav Ashar has been screening Unnamed Guides, a series of filmed walkthroughs of sites of mythological importance in places such as Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodhpur at “India’s first VR centre” at the Bombay Art Society, a suitably futuristic looking building.
Even the Mumbai Film Festival had a VR lounge that showcased a series of short films, curated by director Shakun Batra. “VR is not just some kind of fad or a gimmick,” Batra said in a press release. “It’s here to stay and change the way we tell stories. Not as a substitute to movies but as a new platform for story-telling where you can create immersive worlds and soundscapes that are not possible in 2D and 3D worlds.”
Soon after the release of the James Cameron-directed science fiction blockbuster Avatar (2009), news stories describing “Avatar blues” began surfacing. Avatar viewers allegedly came away feeling depressed after the end credits because they did not want to leave behind the wondrous world of Pandora created in the film.
A curious example of fact imitating fiction, because this audience reaction was an extension of what filmmakers had been saying about Virtual Reality for years – if you engage with it for too long, you will lose the ability to connect with the tangible reality all around you.
In the early part of the millennium, Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which was based on a short story by science fiction author Philip K Dick, showed a future in which VR allowed people to live out their sexual fetishes and fantasies.
Much before Minority Report, Kathryn Bigelow’s visionary Strange Days (1995) explored the particularly addictive qualities of full-scale immersion into an alien reality, in this case the memories of other people.
Numerous examples abound in the movies of the 1980s and ’90s, including The Lawnmower Man, Total Recall and Tron. In all these films, VR was shown to have reached a stage where it was directly implanted into the mind and merged seamlessly with thoughts, dreams and nightmares – a situation ripe for disaster.
Phillip Lacker, the inventor of the Occulus Rift VR device, explained in an interview to The Verge why filmmakers often saw VR as a perverse mix between humans and technology, “...it wouldn’t be interesting science fiction if you said, ‘Well, guess what? There’s this world and they have perfect VR technology, and people have a healthy balance between real life and VR that makes everyone more productive and happy.’”
Not all films have been entirely critical of the technology. In The Matrix (1999), a bulk of Neo’s training takes place in a virtual reality.
Although VR might seem like a recent phenomenon, the idea has been around since the ’50s, when American cinematographer Morton Heilig began developing a VR device called the Sensorama before eventually completing it in 1962. In 1968, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland developed the Sword of Damocles, the first head-mounted VR device. Most of these gizmos were restricted to scientists and inventors. For a long time, flight simulators remained the best expression of the technology.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the gaming companies Nintendo and Atari developed VR accessories for their devices, but both inventions were commercial disappointments, dampening any further exploration into the technology’s use in gaming.
Over the last few years, the technology has become increasingly affordable and easy to use. Virtual Reality is slowly trickling into our homes and into mainstream culture, but its use, particularly in documentary filmmaking and journalism, raises ethical questions.
Like any other film, even a VR one is a constructed experience. Because of its immersive 360-degree quality, viewers could lose the ability to remain objective because they feel as if they are actually in the location witnessing things as they are happening.
There is the larger question of whether it is possible, and ethical, to deliver a traumatic experience that is taking place in another location and is happening to someone else, to viewers in the comfort of their homes.
French director Alain Resnais appears to have anticipated the trickiness of VR in his masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Lui spends a large part of the movie convincing Elle that despite her feeling that she had witnessed the bombings of Hiroshima because she had seen news reports, she couldn’t really have been there. “Tu n’as rien vu à Hiroshima (you saw nothing in Hiroshima),” he repeatedly tells her in the film.
Virtual Reality can transport viewers to Syria or to a coal mine in India and perhaps create awareness about the issues involved, but could they really experience what is happening without actually being there and actually being involved with and affected by what is depicted on screen? If they cannot, then VR is little more than an exploitative gimmick that can heighten the impact of footage but do little more than what existing technologies can do with the same material.
Several filmmakers have expressed their skepticism about the technology’s use as a device for narrative storytelling. Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker who recently made the documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, about the internet, spoke about his problem with VR in an interview with The New Yorker. “The strange thing here is that normally, in the history of culture, we have new stories and narrations and then we start to develop a tool,” Herzog said. “So you have the content first, and then the technology follows suit. In this case, we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content.”
Technology itself can be a problem with virtual reality. Although VR is available in India, there are very few venues that are conducive for a fully immersive viewing experience. Unless top-class technology is used, the footage can be out-of-focus and blurred. Much like 3D glasses, the clunky headgear can be an alienating device.
Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of VR, best explained the problem with the recent evangelisation of the technology that has been around for several decades in an article on The Verge.
“I wonder if the reason we keep on cycling back to hope about cool things like VR is that for all the tech news and our fetishising about our touch devices, we’re still a little disappointed in the menu of tech items that we have at this late date,” Lanier wrote in The Rise and Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality. “It’s 2014 and you can buy a robot to clean your house, but it doesn’t really work that well yet. We have some demos of cars that drive themselves but you can’t really buy one. So I feel like, in a way, we keep on cycling through the same tech hope stories because there’s an impatience and frustration. We wait until we’ve forgotten one of them, then we rediscover it.”