Elevator doors opened to what looked like a disco. An enormous darkened room pulsed with music and blue light from screens. People twirled in swivel chairs, wearing what looked like ski goggles, topped by huge headset earphones. Others stood waiting, watching their faces—what little of their faces was visible under machinery—alert as straphangers surveilling sitters for signs that a seat will soon vacate.
Now, watching others doing it, hearing them talk about how cool it was, I was suddenly anxious to lose my VRginity.
I looked around to see which line was the shortest. Only a few people were queued forSeeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart and soon a young man wearing a T-shirt marked “Crew” guided me into a swivel chair. He advised me to set my bag a few feet away, so my feet wouldn’t trip over it. I worried that the bag might be stolen as goggles were fitted over my head, making me blind, and I became deaf when cushioned headphones slid over my ears. But in the next moment, I forgot about my bag, the room, even my physical coordinates on the planet. A movie started on a screen just inches from my eyes, but I wasn’t watching a movie, I was moving inside it, floating bodiless through space, serenaded by surround-sound opera, hurtling between stars, over rugged Plutonian mountains, through snow flurries so real I could almost feel them pinging my incorporeal cheeks.
Some people get what’s called “VR vertigo” because of the disconnect between brain and body. Your brain is convinced your body is doing something it’s not: flying or walking or running or falling. I didn’t get vertigo as I flew over Pluto, the planet that no longer was. What I did feel was scalp-tingling recognition that what I was experiencing was an entirely new medium with the potential to impact my life as momentously as the internet had. Here was a way to be in a place where my body wasn’t.
When the movie was over and I pulled off the goggles, I saw my bag was just where I left it, undisturbed. But it was I who was dislocated, my consciousness altered by experiencing an entirely new way to tell story.
. . . .
The show getting the most buzz was Allumette. It was twenty minutes, twice the length of other features. Its animation was astonishingly high-caliber, from a studio headed by alums of Pixar and DreamWorks. But the power of Allumette lay only partly in the quality of its production. The real reason that the waitlists were up to nine hours long, was that unlike other productions on offer, it went beyond the spectacle of its technology. It told a story.
Allumette reconceptualizes Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as a modern allegory about love and loss. It takes place in a cloud-borne village populated by thumb-sized characters. The stop-motion-like animation is wordless; the music haunting. Watching it is like peering into a diorama in which characters come to life. A few minutes into it, I realized that I didn’t have to stand in one place. I could walk around in the scene, crossing bridges, winding down streets, peeping through windows, examining things from all angles. But at first, I couldn’t make myself move. My brain knew I was standing on a linoleum floor, but my heart believed my feet were on a cloud and if I stepped off, it would be into thin air. I had to muster actual bravery to push myself forward, and as I did, I tingled with amazement at this entirely new kind of entertainment and at the possibilities I sensed in VR for storytellers.
. . . .
When televisions first came out in 1939, shows aired just twice a week, created by manufacturers who knew no one would buy their products unless there were reasons to watch it. The shows weren’t created for television; they were created for the platform that preceded it: radio. Programs were basically announcers on mics until storytellers figured out that filming stories about the Wild West could keep viewers tuning in.
Investment is pouring into the industry; what it needs now is an infusion of creatives who can figure out how to tell stories in this pioneer medium.
Writers in every media are bemoaning the dearth of paid gigs. The Author’s Guild cites a 30 percent decrease in annual income for authors since 2000. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business. Risk-averse Hollywood is doing remakes. Could VR be the equivalent of a modern WPA project, putting writers back to paid work?