This Year’s Tribeca Showed How VR Experiences Are Getting Longer—and More Immersive

400 people visited each day

A Tribeca Film Festival attendee experiences "Ayahuasca," a VR film that simulates visions from the drug.
Headshot of Marty Swant

If this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was any sign for the future of virtual and augmented reality, experiences are becoming far longer and more immersive.

At this year’s festival, which ran from April 25 through this past weekend, nearly two dozen experiences showed thousands of attendees that VR doesn’t always have to be seated or isolated.

According to Loren Hammonds, the programmer for the festival’s immersive slate, 350 groups from around the world submitted to be a part of this year’s Virtual Arcade. Each day, about 400 people paid $40 for one of several three-hour slots to sample what could someday be the early days of cinema’s next era. And this year’s lineup showed that the future of storytelling doesn’t always have to be fully digital.

Hammonds, who has curated the arcade for the past several years, said past festivals have mostly featured pieces ranging between five and seven minutes, while this year’s were mostly between 12 and 20, with some being as long as 40. That’s good news for anyone who doesn’t mind being in a headset for too long in exchange for a longer story.

“It’s like that blending of immersive theater and technology and immersive storytelling,” Hammonds said, adding that creators “are demanding more attention, and audiences are willing to go with it.”

While film festivals have be come a bit of a focal point for VR and AR, immersive arcades are starting to gain traction somewhat in the U.S. and increasingly common internationally. (For example, in China, an estimated 3,000 VR arcades are scattered across the country.)

While creators in the U.S. are still among the pioneers in the medium, Hammonds said funding is often better elsewhere. For example, telecoms and governments are funding projects in Canada and the U.K., while in the U.S., it’s been largely left up to VR companies like Oculus and Vive.

“The funding from VR is so robust outside of the states that the work is just killer,” he said.

The 2019 VR arcade also had a bit more of an international bent. A collaboration from France and Luxembourg attempted to capture the feeling of an ayuhuasca ceremony, where each person sits cross-legged across from a virtual shaman as the digital world sways and shifts. Other selections were more aimed at social issues. “The Key,” a dream-like interpretation of the world’s ongoing refugee crisis, won the festival’s top immersive category award, while “Drop In the Ocean” allowed several people to experience VR at once while learning about how plastic in the ocean affects environment. Another imagined a near-death experience of a stranger on a Tokyo train station platform.

One of the newer corporate presences at this year’s festival was Bose, which has begun promoting its spatial audio-equipped sunglasses and headphones over the past few months. The company hosted a nearby party for many in the AR and VR world one night during the festival, and also helped provide equipment for others.

The first AR audio piece to premiere at the festival was Into The Light, which allowed several people at a time to walk around Spring Studios (the hub for the festival in Tribeca) while listening the a performance by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma on several floors of the building. While Ma wasn’t there, his presence was—creators Jessica Brillhart and Igal Nassima had recorded the musician offsite as he played Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor.” As they got closer to the epicenter, a heartbeat could be heart in the background, often underneath a piece of AR art created within a VR painting software called Tiltbrush.

According to Sabrina Calvo, a French author and game designer who co-created “7 Lives,” the goal was to use game design engines in VR to let viewers explore a series of memories through the perspective of a variety of people.

“We wanted this experience to belong to the players, because in the end, it is a humanistic fable that by understanding yourself you can understand the others,” Calvo said. “And by understanding the others, you can understand yourself. So it’s a dialogue between the individual and the community.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.