Ever caught yourself on the Monday morning 134, head resting against the vibrating window as the rain rips across the glass, listening to a score of disillusioned strangers thrashing their Metros beneath the wittering, ringtones and the rattling engine, and thought: there has to be more than this? What about when you're standing there in the kitchen doing the dishes and staring out the window as the sky turns grey on Sunday evening, the suds, cups and bits of manky old fishcake colliding with soggy thuds in the plastic tub? Or when you're staring at an abandoned cucumber, still in its cellophane wrapping, leaning against the camo-green telephone exchange unit down the road and wrinkling in the sun? Someone? Anyone?
In early June I received a welcome invitation to escape the ennui and abject misery of modern existence, and experience "nine virtual reality projects in a space where art and interactivity rub shoulders". According to the email, I'd wander a mystical forest, fall witness to an incident of fatal domestic violence, soar over the polar ice caps, hang out with Grayson Perry, and more. Sceptical but ultimately up for it, to be honest I couldn't get my pale, bony backside on the 8:26 to Sheffield fast enough.
This was Doc/Fest. Six days of documentary screenings, panels, master classes and, of course, the virtual reality arcade. Essentially, it's a documentary festival with a leaning towards interactive experiences and storytelling innovation. The day I was there, ex-Rockstar creative Navid Khonsari was showing off the visceral 1979 Revolution in an area which also featured the melancholy That Dragon, Cancer and Karen Palmer's parkour breathe 'em up Syncself 2. It's a friendly festival which celebrates real stories – it's recently been referred by Indiewire to as "Cannes for documentary people", and looking at the line up – which included an opening night screening of the Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's disquieting sequel to the utterly harrowing Act of Killing – it's not hard to see why.
And, after popping into a cramped WHSmith for a pouch of baccy and a Snickers as a group of kids played Moonlight Sonata on one of the nation's curious and now-commonplace train station pianos, I was ushered from the school bus, across the impressive metallic waterfall, over to collect my pass, meet the guys and start the insanity of the festival's most recent addition – the virtual reality arcade.
Peering around the corner of the installation for the first time, watching ten or so people ambling around, their arms cautiously reaching out for invisible objects and occasionally for a supportive wall, a ceiling-mounted playground swing rocking in the back of the room, I remembered the last time I'd wrapped an Oculus Rift unit around my head. It was at 2013's Eurogamer Expo after queuing for over an hour. The title on show then was an eerie rowboat simulator, where you splashed about on a creepy lake under the cover of moonlight, a sombre violin soundtrack lilting its way around the headphones. It made me feel sick and I had to go outside for a little sit down. Gulping down any sense of scepticism here in Sheffield, I joined the end of the queue for the first experience: Vincent Morisset's Way to Go. Billed as both "a walk in the woods" and "an interactive experience for human beings between 5 and 105 years old", it's controlled using a Wii nunchuk and is more of a massively beautiful headfuck than its purposefully obscure descriptions allow.
You follow a square-headed entity through a woodland passage. "Go on," a caption whispers when the sequence loads. "Make your way. Stop to see the smallest things. No one's keeping score." And you do just that, following the avatar through open fields, tight passages of foliage and wide-open expanses of land. You can stop at any point during the journey and inspect areas of the forest, which result in movie close ups of insects wriggling, or squirrels scurrying. As one of the traditionally interactive exhibits in the arcade, pressing buttons on the nunchuk causes the route in front of you to illuminate and chime with a different musical note each time.
The experience lasted around eight minutes, and there were moments – particularly when looking towards a washed out sky as the avatar soars overhead – when it felt genuinely majestic and otherworldly. When the colours starting pumping in and the buttons start to do more, it felt like living inside a scene from Oddsac, and I nearly stacked it in front of everyone when the camera moved to examine a reflection in the lake. Way to Go is very unusual, unexpectedly pleasant and perfectly suited to the medium – charge through the web version on your lunch break if you like, but it's well worth saving for when you can don a full VR set.
Trippy and wholesome "dreamlike" experiences are one thing, but what if VR could convincingly place you on the scene of a brutal crime? To find out, I wandered over to former Newsweek reporter Nonny de la Peña's troubling piece of immersive journalism Kiya, the only experience in the room with an age restriction.
A harrowing insight into the grim realities of domestic violence, Kiya tells the suburban story of three sisters – one of whom, Kiya, is shot to death during a dispute with her maniacal ex-boyfriend. You're dragged from driveway to lounge, listening to snippets of the actual emergency calls that took place on the day. Standing in the lounge watching helplessly as some dude threatens three women with a loaded gun was actually pretty horrifying. In an uncharacteristically heroic move, I found myself genuinely wanting to intervene, crack him round the back of the head or jump on his back. Other times, you're standing on the heat of the driveway impatiently waiting for the police to arrive, or in the kitchen looking the perfectly normal table and the fridge, and in moments like these it was impossible not to reach out and try to physically interact with the environment. Despite the fact that it looks only marginally better than a Dreamcast game's intro movie, the sense of place and sweaty domestic horror was surprisingly convincing. Experiencing Kiya for the first time, I couldn't help but wonder where this form of immersive journalism will take us next, and how many of us will have the balls to go there.
Time for something light hearted, so I ducked out of the main hall to chuckle at the hand-flailing attendees who were currently experiencing Oscar Raby's Hola World – a tropical, psychedelic comment on humanity's waste problem that had its own dark room lit by green lasers. Despite the comic actions of the participants as I was standing there queuing, I was disappointed to learn that the actual experience was a bit broken. Basically you stand there on a beach, upbeat dance music plays and a conveyor belt starts pouring iPhones and HDTVs all over you. You're supposed to be able to grab them and throw them around, but personally I couldn't get it to work properly, a problem no amount of shameless air-grabbing would rectify.
Anyway, I had more pressing matters to attend to – the moment had come to see what that fucking swing was all about. Brendan Walker's Oscillate is designed to simultaneously stimulate both the vestibular system and the visual cortex, and places the user on a virtual swing in a roofless concrete room floating in the void of space. Go on then, let's have a go.
The way it works is that the projected image moves at a different speed and angle to those that you're actually swinging in real life, which, as you can imagine, is seriously, seriously disorientating. You could only be swinging at the speed of a frightened toddler in real life, but the headset has you threatening to crash through the roof and into space. I tried desperately not to fall off in front of a giggling queue, but I slowed the swing to a halt about two minutes in due to the insides-going-grey feeling that can only be recognised as intense nausea. Off for a quick fag and coffee to get my bearings straight and wait for the pukey period to pass, which it did, thankfully rather quickly.
Surprisingly, after my experience at EGX, Oscillate was the only exhibit that caused me to set off bags packed for Chundersville during my trip to the arcade, but I'll be very interested to see whether the leading VR makers can effectively combat the threat of motion sickness nonetheless. With the busiest attractions and narrowly avoided pale-faced puke episode out of the way, it was time to explore a few of the more short-form and subtle experiences.
On Motherboard: Dawn of the Killer Robots
One of the more surreal house tours I'll doubtless take in my lifetime, A House for Essex is a virtual tour of Grayson Perry's latest art installation – a house dedicated to the "Essex everywoman". Hosted by his female alter ego Claire, it was dreamy and amusing; with some typically cloudy-headed commentary by Perry ("what is this weird spaceship?"), and one of the most terrifying bedrooms I've ever seen. Hovering over the balcony was pretty cool.
From Essex to the icecaps with Polar Sea 360, a majestic, panoramic four-minute flight over the Arctic landscape hosted on cardboard VR. The feeling of flight was impressive given the fact that it was one of the few attractions not to use either Oculus or Samsung Gear VR units, and coupled with the giddying and vertigo-inducing Walking New York – in which you fly over the skyscrapers of Manhattan – made for some powerful and unforgettable viewing.
The sky was turning grey, and St. Pancras was calling. However, there was just enough time to explore Chris Milk and Gabo Arora's ( award-winning) Clouds Over Sidra, which takes place in a Syrian refugee camp and follows the life of 12-year-old Sidra as she takes you on a gentle, impeccably observed tour of her surroundings. Standing there as rows of displaced kids walk past staring at you, or in the tarpaulin covered "kitchen" of Sidra's family, or in the makeshift youth wrestling ring ("despite everything they've seen, they still like to fight"), or watching a group of guys hugging each other during a session of Counter-Strike, or in the film's closing moments, when a smiling group of kids make a loving circle around you, it was impossible not to feel a lump in the throat. Everything alright mate? Yeah, I just got something caught in my eye, that's all. Think the headsets are a bit dusty.
As I made my way back across Sheffield's waterfall passageway, reality looming with its washing up bowls, chummy ASOS emails and rain-swept car parks, I looked back on my experiences with disbelief. For one afternoon, I jogged through a psychedelic wood with square headed ghosts, stood awkwardly in the kitchen of a recent murder scene, sat dewy-eyed with a refugee as she told me her story, and nearly puked up on a swing in space – all in an alarmingly convincing and fully immersive fashion. It's really pretty astounding and simultaneously terrifying what humankind is doing with technology at the moment, and the artists with exhibits in Doc/Fest's VR arcade are a massive part of the continuing story. I can only imagine where Sheffield will take us in a year's time.
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