Image credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival wants to normalize VR for the masses

It's not a sideshow anymore.

Joseph Volpe, @jrvolpe
02.10.16 in AV
    Image credit: Tribeca Film Festival

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    Genna Terranova wants virtual reality to feel "commonplace." That is, she wants to make it normal. Terranova, who serves as the director of the Tribeca Film Festival, thinks now is the time to break VR out of its headline-stealing sideshow and make it accessible to the general public. And with a mix of 23 VR exhibits and installations planned for the fest's upcoming slate this April in New York, she's on track to do just that.

    "Yes, the Gear [VR] is out there and Oculus [Rift] is coming, but it's still a bit rarefied as far as the general public goes," says Terranova. "So we want to create a place where people can really explore this and not feel intimidated by it. But also create a space where you can experience these individual pieces and then have conversations about them."

    VR is not new to Tribeca or the film festival circuit (see: Sundance), but its presence has expanded rapidly in a very short time. Since 2002, the festival, now in its 15th year, has been gathering creative types all across Hollywood and the indie community for a celebration of storytelling as typically told through the lens of film. But back in 2013, the festival got its first taste of the burgeoning new medium when it welcomed VR veteran Nonny de la Pena, known for her work in immersive journalism, as part of its TFI New Media Fund. From there, VR's place within the festival has grown, with the likes of Oculus VR demoing its Rift headset prototype, leading to today's robust programming lineup of world premieres.

    These various VR projects will all converge at the festival's Hub, a 30,000-square-foot space located in downtown Manhattan that serves multiple purposes: a lounge for filmmakers and festivalgoers; a screening room for projects; and a home for panel discussions. "Essentially, it is overall a big playground," says Terranova.

    From April 13th to 24th, the Hub will constantly update, swapping out projects as it plays host to various VR-focused programs like the festival's socially conscious Storyscapes exhibit; the Virtual Arcade, a showcase for "leading and emerging voices"; and TFI Interactive, a daylong forum focused on interactive storytelling. Of that VR slate, 16 projects will be making their world premiere, including a couple of animated pieces Terranova describes as "two great examples of the next iteration of virtual reality storytelling": Allumette, from Penrose Studios, and Invasion! from Baobab Studios.

    Allumette, which reads like an updated version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, is an Oculus Rift project that Terranova says will push the limits of VR storytelling. At about 20 minutes in length, it's one of the longer-form pieces to emerge from the medium and, like Fox's The Martian VR Experience, should serve as a litmus test for how much VR the public can handle.

    Loren Hammonds, the festival's interactive programmer, says there will also be works on display at the Hub that showcase VR interactivity in a "different way." The most notable of which is Deep VR, an underwater meditative experience meant to explore feelings of anxiety by incorporating the viewer's breathing -- monitored by a waist-worn sensor -- as a control mechanism. Another project Hammonds is quick to highlight, Old Friend, hails from VR studio Wevr and creator Tyler Hurd. It is, in essence, an interactive, animated music video that leverages HTC's Vive headset and controllers to let viewers "dance like everyone is watching."

    "We wanted to, in this first slate, put out what we think is ... pushing the boundaries a little bit further from what we just have seen," says Terranova.

    Image credits: Penrose Studios (Allumette)

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