Big Dreams for VR Revealed During Israeli Festival
Along a street packed with dirt are many men loafing on the sidewalk under a blue and clear sky splashed with thin clouds and a girl singing in Arabic, somewhere nearby.
Suddenly an airstrike unfolds and the air is filled with the smoke from the explosion. The bystanders fall to the ground due to the shockwave of the explosion.
This scene is unfortunately common in Syria and is being experienced hundreds of miles away in a white-walled room, sparsely decorated, on the first floor in the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. The visitors took turns pulling a pair of headphones and a hefty set of goggles over their eyes to watch the “Project Syria” an immersive documentary.
A few steps away from the Carmel Market outdoor, the documentary was recently being watched as a part of an interactive festival that highlights the power of virtual reality, an emerging technology to create a sense of being there. VR helps to insert people into completely new and foreign environments.
With a high water mark coming in 2014 when Oculus VR was bought by Facebook for $2 billion, the virtual reality industry is in the middle of a flourishing cycle. There are a number of indie virtual reality tech companies and studios in Israel. The company that plans to manufacture a 360-degree camera under the $100 mark is also in Israel. So Israel is competing to get a reasonable piece of the pie of virtual reality.
Virtual reality game designer Doron Knaan speaking at a festival on March 4th, said, “My fantasy is that Israel will be a VR powerhouse, and we have every opportunity to do it.”
His confidence comes due to the advancement and achievement of indie virtual reality studios, which seems to him as the future of the industry and also due to Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit that it’s well known for.
Steamer Salon, who organized the Steamer Interactive Story Festival that lasts for four days, is a part of the struggle to make the fantasy of Knaan a reality. This organization was formed by a group of students who studied at Tel Aviv University Steve Tisch School of Film and Television. The students hoped to take their creative insight to a unique and new medium, but lacked the technical information and know-how.
Adi Lavy, one of the group’s founders said, “It was really hard to get information and knowledge, which is completely unjustified” and he went on to say there’s a “disconnect between the film industry and Israeli VR technology.”
Steamer Salon has done a lot besides connecting the virtual reality companies with the virtual reality filmmakers. Steamer Salon is the nucleus of the program that’s opening in October at Tel Aviv University. Students will be able to obtain a masters of fine arts in digital media focusing on new platforms for storytelling.
At the festival, the atmosphere was muscular, full of confidence that VR can and will become an important medium in society even though people have their doubts due to motion sickness among other potential issues.
Nonny de la Peña, a senior research fellow, and journalist at USC who directed “Project Syria” during an afternoon panel said, “There’s a lot of junk out there, and they’re able to get away with it because of the ‘wow’ factor. That’s not going to last.”
She said, the thing that will last is the power of the medium to give an empathetic understanding of situations and people to the audiences that otherwise might elude them. For example, she debuted a virtual reality experience in 2015, named “Kiya”. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “Kiya” gives the viewers a domestic violence situation to point out a problem that on average takes the lives of three women each day.
De la Peña, at a domestic panel, said, “It’s an astonishing number, but people hear it and then it’s gone.”
Gabo Arora, a senior advisor at the United Nations was sitting across from De La Peña at the panel. Gabo also makes virtual reality films for the United Nations. He spoke about the impact on the audience that watched his short VR documentary about the crisis in Syria.
The documentary “Clouds Over Sidra” is based on a 12-years old girl who left her home because of the conflict in Syria. Arora told the story of how a journalist from Iraq, whom he met at the conference, asked to see the film. Aurora said, after watching the documentary and removing the virtual reality goggles, “he broke down very seriously and actually had to be consoled.” This journalist especially resonated with this due to the similar violence that the journalist had experienced in Iraq.
Arora was on the streets of Tel Aviv in Israel to show the people of the streets of Tel Aviv in his newest documentary project as well as to film their reactions. “My Mother’s Wing” is an eight-minute virtual reality documentary based on a family living in Gaza that lost two sons during the conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2014. He said that some other people reacted in a negative way (“What about our struggles?”), but many others were moved by the film.
Participants in the panel circulated through a number of virtual reality exhibits and shows. The groups of five each took turns sitting around a dinner table upstairs. The dinner table was set with empty dishes, artificial flowers, and silverware. They wore virtual reality goggles to view “The Doghouse”, which is the mystery of a murder by Johan Knattrup Jensen, a Danish artist. Each participant sees the story differently unfolded from the perspective different characters.
There were many participants who were experiencing virtual reality technology for the first time in their life.
Natalie Edwards, a marketing manager who attended the festival and moved from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv about two years ago, said, “Project Syria” has helped her a lot to visualize the crisis that she read in the news reports. But due to the style of the filming of “The Doghouse”, she was unable to sit through the whole experience. It can cause motion sickness since the characters can shift their perspective while it also enables the users to independently look at the scene.
Edward said of the video, “It’s the dissonance that makes you dizzy.”
Panelists were confident that the difficulties or problems could be overcome by acknowledging that the technology is a work in progress. During a morning panel, Yoram Honig, a director of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, an organization whose mission is to incentivize filming in the capital of Israel, conceded that the technology was “not quite exact and completed.” But he predicted a coming renaissance for the virtual reality, gaming, and interactive animation industry.
He also said, “Read my lips. We think that in five years from now, 2,000 people will work in that industry in Jerusalem.”