Ever tried virtual reality? If not, imagine this: You pull a big headset over your eyes, grab controllers in your hands, and soon, your living room falls away. You look around, and you’re in a geodesic dome on a mountainside. There’s a fire going in the fireplace. Visible outside: the aurora borealis, and shooting stars overhead in the night sky. From this place, multiple paths lie before you. Choose one, and you’re accompanying a refugee leaving Afghanistan on his long journey by bus, boat and train; landscapes passing by, the sun rising and setting. Choose another, and you’re in space! Jessica Chastain guides you inside of a black hole, and Patti Smith narrates the Big Bang before your eyes. On yet another path you’re with pangolins, talking to you as they search for food and shade in the heat of the desert. Whichever you choose - and you can choose them all! - you’re fully immersed, with sights and sounds in every direction. The reality of your living room, and your life, is distant for a while.
The Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow (PAM CUT for short) now rents out virtual reality headsets, preloaded with 10 curated immersive VR pieces from around the world, for you to try out for a few days at home. The VR to Go program is a partnership with the Pfi Centre in Montreal, and PAM CUT is the program’s only venue in the United States. With it, the center hopes to increase access to this growing and evolving art form, and eventually to open doors to new creative work in virtual reality and 3D filmmaking here in the Northwest.
Jon Richardson is the Center for an Untold Tomorrow’s associate director of creative programs. He recently joined OPB’s Jenn Chávez, another recent virtual reality first-timer, to talk about VR To Go and some of its summer programming, which has been extended through Oct. 31.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Chávez: I am a film lover and have been watching movies my entire life. But this recent experience was my first time ever trying VR and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Can you describe what it feels like for people who have never done it before?
Jon Richardson: Absolutely. I’d say that I’m also somewhat of a beginner when it comes to enjoying the VR experience as a viewer. I think that one of the things that really differentiates VR viewing experiences from a more traditional sense is that you are completely in it, from the moment you begin to the moment you take the headset off. You do not have an opportunity to fold laundry or check your phone or do whatever else you might be doing while watching a movie at home. You don’t even think about those things. You are fully immersed in whatever experience is in front of you at that moment.
Chávez: These headsets come with 10 international VR pieces. They’re curated by PAM CUT, and they’re really varied. We’re talking about stuff from stop motion animation to photorealism; from the Kalahari desert, to Afghanistan, to space. What is the theme that ties all these projects together?
Richardson: When these pieces were curated by a number of our staff here at PAM CUT, the idea was that they would capture the past, present and future… When we have a piece like “I Saw the Future,” that takes actual audio from Arthur C. Clarke speaking about where he saw the future of experiencing space and time, and essentially predicting exactly what’s going on and what you’re seeing in that moment. It’s animated using very futuristic imagery, but this is audio from the 1960s. We also have “Kinoscope,” which talks about the history of cinema, as well as “The Dawn of Art,” that’s another one where you’re kind of looking back into the past. But then when you watch something like “Blind Vaysha,” you really feel that experience of the past and the future. Because that one - it’s a Canadian piece - it’s about a character who in their right eye sees the future, and in their left eye sees the past. So it’s truly taking that theme and exploring it within the piece itself.
Chávez: Do you have a favorite, and what do you like about it?
Richardson: My personal favorite is “Kinoscope,” but that’s because I’m a cinema dork and I think that that one just kind of spoke to me personally. But I would say that the fan favorite from people who come in to drop their headsets off is usually “Spheres,” which is a three-parter. That one has narration by Jessica Chastain, Millie Bobby Brown and Patti Smith, and the Patti Smith one is usually the one that people talk about the most.
Chávez: Yeah, one of those, you are inside a black hole, and then you become a black hole, and then you absorb another black hole! It is wild. So, I’m glad you brought that up.
Richardson: I love talking about this stuff, it’s so wild. It’s amazing what you can do in VR that you can’t do with traditional cinematic storytelling. Because yes, you can show that on a screen, but if you look to your left or your right, you’re gonna see walls or another person. Whereas here, you’re just in it, you are part of it.
Chávez: This is a rentable experience. It is a three-day rental of these kits and these VR pieces. Do you think of this as an entry point to this type of art, and also this technology, for people who normally wouldn’t have access to it?
Richardson: Absolutely. I’d say that the majority of the people that have already been renting out the VR headsets, this is the first time putting a headset on in the first place. And it’s really exciting, because there’s something about our programming or the marketing that we have that called out to somebody, and they thought, “wow, this is a way that I can really see what’s going on and find out what people are talking about.” When you come in and you take out a headset, there’s a member of our staff who’s here to walk you through the process, and especially if you’re a first time VR user, you need that guidance when you’re putting a headset on. Somebody to say: “so what you see in front of you is this, the reason why you have to do this with your controllers is so that it knows where the floor is.” You know, it’s really helpful to have that hand holding for somebody who it’s their first time using a piece of equipment like this.
Chávez: A few months ago, your organization, which used to be called the Northwest Film Center, changed its name to Center for an Untold Tomorrow. How does virtual reality fit into your expanded mission, and this idea of an “untold tomorrow?”
Richardson: Well, I’d say that virtual reality is something that, even when we were called the Northwest Film Center, was part of what we were doing. The VR to Go program started during that time, as the Northwest Film Center. But by not having the word “film” as part of our name, it gives us that opportunity to explore newer technologies. Maybe aside from VR - things that maybe we haven’t even considered yet, or maybe things that haven’t even been invented yet. VR is one of those things that’s been in our periphery for decades. And you know, we remember movies like The Lawnmower Man, where it’s taking this VR world, or there’s TV shows from maybe the ‘90s, where it’s all about virtual reality, but it’s looked at in a very blocky, geometric way. And now we’re at a point where you can watch - like you said, you can become a black hole - and that is a very different experience. We want to make sure that we are open to all forms of cinematic storytelling, and really celebrate those who are willing to push themselves and explore these new forms of expressing themselves creatively.
Chávez: Does your organization have any future plans about expanding your VR offerings?
Richardson: Well, we’re definitely looking into what the future VR To Go is going to look like. And if you stay tuned to pamcut.org, you’ll see a lot of new things coming up that include VR as part of the system. We’re [also] officially going to have a workshop on learning how to do VR and 360 filmmaking, so that’s going to be going up on our website soon. It’s really gonna be part of who we are and all of our offerings for quite a while.
Chávez: Yeah, so it sounds like you’re not exposing people to this art, but also potentially working with emerging VR or immersive artists. From this perspective, what do you hope to see in the future of cinematic storytelling through virtual reality?
Richardson: That is a great question, and I think that’s the “untold” of it, is that… man, who knows? Personally, I am fascinated by what we can do with even audio storytelling and podcasting, and I think that in the world of VR, there’s an opportunity to present podcasting in a completely new way as well. So whether it’s documentary storytelling or whether it’s narrative, there’s gonna be a lot of ways that VR is going to help you tell your story in a way that traditional audio only, or 2D filmmaking, [is] just not going to make the most sense. I think that there’s going to be a lot of creative ways that our storytellers are going to be able to really bring the audience in, using these technologies.
Chávez: Any last words for folks in our audience who might be considering trying out something like this?
Richardson: Well, I will say that out of these 10 pieces that we have as part of VR To Go, there’s something for everybody. I know that there are some people who have just watched the same one over and over again. And there’s some people who have tried all of them. That’s the great thing about having it for a few days, you can take your time with it and you can do it however it makes sense for you. It’s just a lot of fun, and we’re happy to be part of it.