Virtual reality is either the future or totally dead, it just depends on who you ask. The aromas wafting through the Tribeca Film Festival's VR Arcade, however, don't smell like a decomposing industry—they smell like the grasslands of Africa, the Amazon rainforest, and California redwoods.
Three films incorporate smell into their virtual reality experience with surprising success: Kathryn Bigelow and Imraan Ismail's The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger's Shoes, Milica Zec and Winslow Porter's Tree, and Marshmallow Laser Feast's TREEHUGGER: WAWONA. Each used props and set pieces to get viewers in the mood, then deployed the smells to trigger a level of immersion you don't see—or smell—in your average Google Cardboard or Oculus Rift experience.
Bigelow and Ismail's setup for The Protectors is the most elaborate, and the most passive. They seem to have transplanted an entire clearing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Garamba National Park, where the film was shot, directly into the festival's Spring Studios headquarters. I take a deep breath in through my nose, and a PA working the booth tells me he sprayed the bushes with an odor designed evoke the landscape in the film.
I continue to notice the smell as I don the headset and find myself in an African savannah. A small team of filmmakers embedded with the drastically underfunded park rangers who protect the park's less than 1,300 remaining elephants, down from 20,000 in the 1960s. Poachers hunt the massive mammals—whom research indicates are as smart as chimpanzees, capable of empathy, and posses a sense of self—to harvest their tusks and genitals.
The film is heartbreaking, particularly in moments that showcase evidence of what the poachers have done. In one scene, I walk into a room that is stacked with elephant tusks, each pair representing a death. Many are devastatingly small. In another I'm walking with the rangers through tall grass and we come upon the carcass of an elephant. A ranger named Tomasi leans down and gazes at the beast's mutilated head, swarming with flies. Despite myself I'm grateful that scent technology isn't too accurate—yet.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has asserted that elephant poaching is linked to terrorism, crashed The Protectors panel on April 21 as a surprise guest. "We can provide support for the rangers, provide better equipment, work with organizations like African Parks, work with willing countries that take wildlife protections seriously, and you can make a little bit of progress," she said. At the end of the VR film is a call to action advocating for donations to outfitaranger.org.
I visit the New York premiere of Milica Zec and Winslow Porter's Tree and pivot from animal rights to climate change. I slip into the VR headset, phones, and a haptic backpack, which rumbles every time I—as the seed of a tree in the Amazon rainforest—stretch and grow upwards.
An attendant wafts a pressurized container of pure earthiness toward me as I wiggle through a hole in the soil and slowly creep toward the sky. I observe fluttering birds, scurrying insects, and monkey shenanigans before bursting through the canopy and gazing at a startlingly beautiful sunset. As I cope with vertigo, I notice smoke in the distance.
Darkness sets in, until a warm orange light begins leaking from the ground below. A recent study in Nature indicates that climate change, combined with eco-systems fragmented by logging, makes trees more likely to dry out and catch fire. From the tree's perspective, I experience that process in action.
Tree is Zec and Porter's follow up to award-winning VR film Giant, in which you're a fly on the wall as a family hides from a bombing in their basement. The film is based on Zec's own experience growing up in Serbia—then Yugoslavia—during NATO's military operations against the country. Similarly to Giant, Zec and Winslow flip the script in Tree, transforming the viewer from an aggressor in the systemic problem of climate change into the victim. Smell sets the stage for this mental shift, like noticing the smell of a new city after leaving the sanitized atmosphere of an airport.
"Virtual reality at its core is just a way to transform a person or place through a reappropriation of senses," Porter tells Creators. "Tapping into other senses can unlock a whole new level of immersion. Part of us knows it's not real and another part really wants to believe."
The most advanced use of smell technology comes from another bid for environmental activism, Marshmallow Laser Feast's Treehugger: Wawona. We've seen MLF evolve from animation to immersive installation, and now they're focusing on banging out innovative and thoughtful VR experiences, like one of the first 360° animated music videos and a mixed reality dining experience. That progression has led them to create a VR dramatization of a water droplet making its way from the root of a sequoia to the top.
While this sounds similar to Tree, the experience is entirely different. I'm encouraged to walk around a giant sculpture that looks like a matte black cross-section of a tree. Once I'm encased the HTC Vive headset and accompanying glove-mounted sensors, it blossoms into a river of light and color shooting up from the ground. Both the installation and the digital structure are modeled on LIDAR, white light, and CT scans captured and processed by artist Natan Sinigaglia and researchers at London's Natural History Museum and Salford University. Music composed by Mileece I'Anson parsing data about the tree's circulatory system sets chill vibes as I move toward the tree.
I notice a scent that reminds me of freshly fallen leaves and morning mist. It's pouring into my nose through a device mounted on the headset. A nearby worker tells me it's a complex gadget that can shuffle through multiple aromas, like shuffling songs on Spotify. Instead of a one-film, one-smell situation, it could adapt many sensory experiences within a single film. Imagine walking through the door to a house, and all of a sudden smelling fresh pie baking. This seems like a big deal, but the representative I was talking to was hush hush about the technology. In any case, I know the future when I smell it, and it's fascinating.
Smell came up last year when I spoke to Chris Milk, who has his hands in multiple projects at the Tribeca VR Arcade. He's the founder of Within and Here Be Dragons, a prolific VR filmmaker, popularized then surpassed the term, "empathy machine," and prefers not to be called the VR guy ("Jaron Lanier is the VR guy," he insists).
We talked about the future of virtual reality in a broad sense, and Milk hyped me up with lines like, "VR will mean the democratization of human experience in the same way that the internet brought the democratization of data." When we got to the specifics, though, he was honest. "People can live that human experience, what it's like to be there, first hand… barring smell and taste and touch."
Three of the five human sensory inputs possible in VR, the exception being taste and touch. Groups like MLF and Tokyo University's Cyber Interface Lab are working on it, however, though they admit that they have a long way to go.
"Touch is the next thing, it's easier than smell and taste," Milk told me. "Taste is a problem."
See the full lineup of Tribeca's VR Arcade here.