Have you ever tried Virtual Reality? If not, imagine this: you pull a large headset over your eyes, reach for controllers and soon your living room falls away. You look around and you find yourself in a geodesic dome on a mountainside. A fire burns in the fireplace. Visible outside: the Northern Lights and shooting stars in the night sky. From this place there are several paths in front of you. Choose one and you will join a refugee leaving Afghanistan on their long journey by bus, boat and train; Landscapes pass by, the sun rises and sets. Choose another one and you are in space! Jessica Chastain takes you into a black hole and Patti Smith narrates the Big Bang before your eyes. Another trail has pangolins that will talk to you as they search for food and shade in the desert heat. Whichever you choose – you can choose them all! – You are completely immersed, with sights and sounds in every direction. The reality of your living room and your life is far away for a while.
The Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow (PAM CUT for short) is now renting virtual reality headsets preloaded with 10 curated immersive VR pieces from around the world for you to try at home for a few days. The VR to Go program is in partnership with the Pfi Center in Montreal, and PAM CUT is the program’s sole venue in the United States. In doing so, the center hopes to increase access to this growing and evolving art form, and eventually open doors to new creative work in virtual reality and 3D filmmaking here in the North West.
Jon Richardson is Associate Director of Creative Programs at the Center for an Untold Tomorrow. He recently joined OPB’s Jenn Chávez, another virtual reality first-timer, to talk about VR To Go and some of its summer programs, which have been extended through October 31st.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Chavez: I’m a movie lover and have watched movies my whole life. But this recent experience was my first time trying VR and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Can you describe how it feels for people who have never done this before?
Jon Richardson: Absolutely. I would say that I’m also more of a beginner when it comes to enjoying the VR experience as a viewer. I think one of the things that really differentiates VR viewing experiences from a more traditional sense is that you’re completely in it, from the moment you start to the moment you take off the headset. You don’t get a chance to fold laundry or check your phone or whatever else you do while watching a movie at home. You don’t even think about these things. You are fully immersed in the experience that is in front of you in this moment.
Chavez: These headsets come with 10 international VR elements. They are curated by PAM CUT and are really varied. We’re talking about things from stop motion animation to photorealism; from the Kalahari Desert to Afghanistan to outer space. What theme connects all these projects?
Richardson: When these pieces were curated by some 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 actually has audio spoken by Arthur C Clarke about where he saw the future of the experience of space and time, essentially predicting exactly what is going on and what you are seeing in that moment. It’s animated with very futuristic visuals, but that’s audio from the 1960s. We also have ‘Kinoscope’ which talks about the history of cinema and ‘The Dawn of Art’ which is another piece that kind of looks back in time. But when you watch something like “Blind Vaysha” you really feel this experience of the past and the future. Because this – it’s a Canadian play – is about a character who sees the future with her right eye and the past with her left eye. So it really takes that theme and explores it within the piece itself.
Chavez: 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 idiot and I think this film just spoke to me personally. But I’d say that the fan favorite of people dropping their headphones is usually “Spheres,” a three-piece. This one has narration by Jessica Chastain, Millie Bobby Brown, and Patti Smith, and Patti Smith’s is usually the one people talk about the most.
Chavez: Yes, one of those, you’re in a black hole, and then you become a black hole, and then you absorb another black hole! it’s 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 left or right you will see walls or another person. While you’re just in here, you’re part of it.
Chavez: This is a rentable experience. It’s a three-day rental of these kits and these VR parts. Do you see it as an entry into this kind of art and also into this technology for people who would not normally have access to it?
Richardson: Absolutely. I would say that for the majority of people who have rented VR headsets, this is their first time ever putting on a headset. And it’s really exciting because something about our program or marketing grabbed someone, and they were like, ‘Wow, this way I can really see what’s going on and find out what people are talking about.’ If you come in and taking out a headset there is one of our staff to walk you through the process and especially if you are a first time VR user you will need this guide when putting on a headset. Someone who says, “So what you’re looking at in front of you is this, the reason you need to do this with your controllers is so they know where the ground is.” You know, it’s really helpful, those Holding hands for someone using such a device for the first time.
Chavez: A few months ago, your organization, formerly called the Northwest Film Center, changed its name to the Center for an Untold Tomorrow. How does virtual reality fit into your expanded mission and this notion of an “unexplainable tomorrow”?
Richardson: Well, I would say that virtual reality was something that, even when we were called Northwest Film Center, was a part of what we did. The VR to Go program started as Northwest Film Center during this time. But since we don’t have the word “film” in our name, we have the opportunity to explore newer technologies. Maybe apart from VR – things we might not have even considered, or maybe things that haven’t even been invented yet. VR is one of those things that has been on our periphery for decades. And you know, we remember movies like The Lawnmower Man where it’s taking over this VR world, or TV shows from the ’90s where it’s all about virtual reality, but it’s going to be in a very blocky, geometric way considered. And now we’re at a point where you can watch – like you said, you can become a black hole – and that’s a whole different experience. We want to make sure we’re open to all forms of cinematic storytelling, and truly celebrate those willing to push themselves and explore these new forms of creative expression.
Chavez: Does your organization have future plans to expand your VR offerings?
Richardson: Well, we’re definitely looking at what future VR To Go will look like. And if you stay tuned to pamcut.org, you’ll see a lot of new things that include VR as part of the system. was [also] there will officially be a workshop for learning VR and 360 degree films, so that will be on our website soon. It’s really going to be a part of us and all of our offerings for quite a while.
Chavez: Yes, it sounds like you’re not exposing people to this art, but might also be collaborating with upcoming VR or immersive artists. From this perspective, what do you hope for in the future of cinematic storytelling through virtual reality?
Richardson: That’s a great question, and I think that’s the “untold” of it, is that… man, who knows? I’m personally fascinated by what we can do with audio storytelling and podcasting, and I think there’s an opportunity in the world of VR to present podcasting in a whole new way as well. Whether it’s documentary storytelling or narration, there will be many ways VR will help you tell your story in a way that is only possible with traditional audio or 2D films. [is] just won’t make the greatest sense. I think there will be many creative ways that our storytellers can really engage the audience using these technologies.
Chavez: Any last words for people in our audience who might be considering trying something like this?
Richardson: Well, I will say that of these 10 tracks that we have as part of VR To Go, there is something for everyone. I know there are some people who have seen the same thing over and over again. And there are some people who have tried them all. That’s the great thing about having it for a few days, you can take your time with it and do what makes sense for you. It’s just a lot of fun and we like to be part of it.