Sunday, 20 January 2019

REVIEW: Virtual Reality Cinema - HOME, Manchester.

A few years ago I was accompanying my daughter to an ophthalmist’s appointment in which she was asked to respond to some 3d exercises. “She’s not expected to see 3d illusions very well anyway” explained the ophthalmist, “not with her prescription.”“But I have a similar prescription.” I said, mildly perturbed.“Oh goodness no. You shouldn’t see them at all.” She cheerfully chuckled.That was quite the revelation to a film fan at a time when Hollywood was beginning a campaign of force- feeding audiences the 3d experience. If I’d have known this information in my teenage years, I wouldn’t have wasted all those hours trying to see magic eye puzzles and could have used the time more wisely by perhaps going out… or making a friend! Alas.

Another doctor once told me that I have ridiculously shallow ear-ducts, which is why in-the-ear headphones and earbuds will never stay in for me. I am a dinosaur, lacking the physical evolution needed for the modern world!

So when I was offered the chance to try out a virtual reality experience, I was prepared for the worst. It is in my genetics to adapt too slowly for modern technology, but I hoped that it would be a fun new experience. Leaving my cynicism behind and armed only with my limited sensory attributes, I popped along to HOME to give it a go. On their website HOME’s blurb promised that “The screenings are presented in Limina’s unique VR Theatre Space; a relaxed, welcoming and calm environment designed for collectively experiencing VR in the best setting possible ...” Which was in fact a theatre space with empty seating banks, two cluttered desks, half a dozen mismatched swivel chairs and a member of HOME’s staff reading from a crumpled piece of A4 paper. It appears that my cynicism that I had stowed away in the car had snuck in to the venue with me.

The only way was up from here. After being briefed by HOME’s invariably welcoming staff, we were fitted with the headset and the headphones and all set for what promised to be 30 minutes to explore 4 short virtual experiences. ‘Celestial Motion’ (Fernando, S & the Alexander Whitley Dance Company), ‘Sanctuaries of Silence’ (Loften, A and Vaughan-Lee, E.), ‘Underwood’ (Tomlinson, Gasser, Zucker and Haas) and ‘The 500’ (Biome Productions). ‘Celestial Motion’ was a contemporary dance fused with motion capture graphics that spun around you whilst overhead images of the sun and stars melded fluidly with the movement of the performers. It was nothing much and the choreography was quite run-of-the-mill as far as contemporary dance goes, but one suspects that this is partly to do with restrictions placed upon it by the medium/technology. ‘Sanctuaries of Silence’ was well shot, with varying landscapes used as a thought-provoking piece on how humans have imposed noise pollution on all corners of our earth. It was full of interesting environments to look at but took the bizarre choice of using voice-over to describe the quietest place in north America. “Well if you’d zip-it for a second and let us enjoy it…” was my cynicism’s opinion on that one. ‘Underwood’ was a stop-motion animation in which some creatures potter about in a woodland clearing. My criticism here is not intended to diminish the impressive achievements of the filmmakers, but the film is merely a technical exercise and best suited for a children’s exhibition in a science museum. Finally, ‘The 500’ was a documentary about Alo Hussein who dedicated his life to caring for The Ethiopian Wolf, a species on the brink of extinction with merely 500 surviving in the wild. It is an engrossing documentary, set in a beautiful landscape, so the medium of virtual reality did add somewhat to the experience. The film is so strong and the subject interesting enough, that it would make for an enjoyable 2d film.

So what of the technology and the overall experience its self? It is hard to shake the knowledge that you and five other companions are on a theatre stage, balanced precariously on office furniture, pivoting your head pointlessly about under a massive eye-mask and being watched nonchalantly by three staff members. So I had to ignore cynicism as it whispered in my ear that I must look rather silly indeed. It was quite easy to disavow this suspicion because the professionalism of the HOME staff was constantly reassuring that our rather vulnerable position was being treated respectfully and the quality of ‘The 500’ was so good, that I was engrossed enough to ignore any inhibitions. The headset and headphones were perfectly comfortable, whilst the footage responded seamlessly to any movement and accompanied by the surround sound the more successful films were immersive. However, and this might draw more cheerful chuckles from any ophthalmists privy to my subscription, all of the footage, when examined closely, was tantalisingly just out of focus because the nature of the VR masks means that our eyes can’t do all of the work to adjust to images.

It was a good experience, but I’ll stick to 2d cinema screens and a focus on story over technology for the time being.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 20/1/19

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