Hot Docs ’16: Putting virtual reality on trial

During a session at Hot Docs in Toronto on Tuesday (May 3), Google VR's Jessica Brillhart (pictured) and the CFC's Ana Serrano held a spirited debate on the advantages and disadvantages inherent in the developing technology.
May 4, 2016

During the “VR on Trial” session at Hot Docs in Toronto on Tuesday (May 3), VR Google principal filmmaker Jessica Brillhart (pictured) and the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) chief digital officer Ana Serrano focused their spirited debate on the advantages and disadvantages inherent within the fledgling virtual reality experience.

Forming the viewpoint of the opposition was Serrano, who argued the medium provides users with the privileges of location and place while masquerading presence in a computer generated environment as truth. The space, she said, ignores the documentary filmmaking principles of seeking out and reflecting on truths.

“Presence is not the same as truth,” the CFC exec stated during the panel, which was moderated by Richard Lachman, director of Transmedia Zone and associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University. “Literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes does not create empathy, but for some bizarre reason, this notion that if you do it virtually… it somehow creates empathy and intimacy. We know that’s not true literally, so why do we think that’s true virtually?”

Though Brillhart saw Serrano’s point regarding empathy, she maintained that the budding technology provided users with depth through not only visual stereoscopics, but through emotion.

“There’s a huge difference between film and VR fundamentally,” the Google filmmaker said. “With film, you’re an objective viewer – there’s a window. [With] VR you’re present, you’re there and that has ramifications in ways we haven’t even tapped into yet. Positive things.”

While story can be used as a framework to work around a technology still experiencing its infancy, the best way to unlock beneficial outcomes is through experimentation, seeing the end result of that experimentation, learning from it and making adjustments until an effective formula is in place, she maintained.

“But to promise that the end result will be story feels a little premature,” Brillhart said. “There are other things that are really important like the platforms, the fidelity of the content and how to monetize it.”

Virtual reality, Serrano contested, is entrenched in “an economic infrastructure” that relies strictly on gathering sensitive information from consumers worldwide and turning those data points into profit for the few.

While retailers have managed to transform browsing habits into dollars, firms experimenting in VR have developed new devices sophisticated enough to collect “granular parts of data” capable of tracking such biofeedback as eye movements, heart rate, biorhythms and brainwave activity in order to anticipate what the consumer wants before he or she even realizes they want it themselves.

“If you think this is too sci-fi and out there, you just have to look at what Oculus Rift’s terms and conditions are,” Serrano said.

She noted that three of those terms and conditions note that Oculus collects data on how operators use its Rift headset; that third parties collect information about users through Oculus’ consent; and that anything that can be created on its platform by a user can be used in myriad ways by the company.

“The future of VR is in final simulation where one will no longer be able to tell what is real or what is virtual,” Serrano said. “Where does documentary play a role in a medium that’s trying to recreate reality?”

Although both fundamentally agree that virtual reality is what’s in store for documentary in the foreseeable future, the two noted the difficulties producers encounter when attempting to acquire funding for VR projects.

Currently, virtual reality manufacturers are the only outfits granting money through various contests such as the Oculus Mobile VR Jam, which last year granted a total prize pool of more than US$1 million split between two tracks – one for VR games, and the other for VR experiences and apps. Traditional funders like the National Film Board of Canada or the Canada Media Fund may also be interested in VR-related projects, but nothing is guaranteed and there’s no financing model currently in place, Serrano explained.

And while Google may not have a technological fund for VR projects, the Silicon Valley tech giant scours sister company YouTube for compelling virtual reality content to feature on its home page and may offer additional support or partnerships further down the road.

(Photo by Adriano Trapani, courtesy of Hot Docs)

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.