Virtual Reality (VR) is often talked about as the ‘next big thing’ in technology and entertainment. It’s been touted as the new frontier for the gaming industry, and a promising new experimental artform for filmmakers. Companies like Google, Facebook and Sony have released, or will release, their own forms of VR headsets. It seems inevitable that as the technology improves, artists will wield the power to create fully immersive, three-dimensional worlds. And it also seems inevitable that we, as consumers, will be desperate to enter these worlds.
The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) is in an ideal position to bring VR to Melbourne, especially with its collaborative co-working space, ACMI X, which opened earlier this year. “As VR becomes a new tool for artistic expression we are excited about how leading practitioners who work in live performance can harness it and speak to audiences in new ways on this rapidly evolving platform,” says ACMI CEO Katrina Sedgwick.
Among the three VR experiences they have commissioned is Ghosts, Toasts and the Things Unsaid; a 15-minute film (to put it simply) that follows the relationship of two characters, Maude and Steve, from youth to old age, all within the same home. It started as a collaboration between creative agency Sandpit and Google Creative Lab, and was performed as a VR/theatre hybrid at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival, where it won the award for ‘best interactive’. In this form, audience members stood in the centre of a room, while actors played out the scenes around them. The kicker: audiences were fitted with headphones which played the inner thoughts of the characters during the performance (but more on that later).
This time, the entire piece takes place through a set of VR goggles and headphones. ACMI – in collaboration with digital tech company Grumpy Sailor – has turned Ghosts into an immersive experience that has to be seen to be believed.
As an audience member, you’re asked to choose whether you want to be Maude or Steve. Then, you’re ushered into a small room, handed a pair of VR goggles and headphones, and left alone. Soon, a lounge room appears, and the first thing you notice is just how fully realised the world of VR can be. You’re granted a 360-degree vantage point, which you can explore by turning around on your stool, looking up and looking down. A middle-aged man and a woman pace across the lounge room; and when you turn in your seat, you’re suddenly seeing two new characters, much younger, in the kitchen. Suddenly, it dawns on you: you’re the ghost of your chosen character; and you’re watching moments from your own life unfold.
It would almost be enough to observe and take in this world without a real plot unfolding. But quickly, it becomes clear that Maude and Steve are no longer together, and both harbour secrets that became the undoing of their relationship. Depending on where you look, the inner thoughts of your character begin to play in your head. You watch the couple interact while your character grapples with impossible dilemmas and asks themselves whether they should say what’s on their mind.
It’s a fascinating and moving experience. And while the plot isn’t terribly complex (remember, it’s decades of life condensed into 15 minutes) and there are limitations to the technology (at times, the view is slightly off-focus), it’s thrilling to witness the dawn of a brand new mode of storytelling.
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