To VR or not to VR: this is not the question

I was at IDFA DocLab earlier in the week and my head is still spinning with VR experiences that showed me the limit between the so called 2D “screen media” and the 3D “immersive media”. I have to admit: I find it difficult to get my own prospective on this change of canvas.

What is this extra 3rd dimension adding to my story experience? Or rather, how is this changing my making sense of the reality depicted in the pieces I am experiencing?

I am really unclear about this, and I oscillate between the certitude that VR will soon be an independent platform with its own language and the doubt that if we do not think hard right now at what we want to do with it, it might stay at the sensationalist level for way too long before it acquires its own raison d’etre.

Let me reformulate that: my doubt is that if we do not find a real added value to VR in non-fiction narrative, once the wow effect wears out, this platform will stick to gaming and porn, two markets where its added value are very clear.

So I am stuck into this dilemma: to VR or not to VR (in factual narrative) – mainly because I am not convinced by what I am seeing so far.

A long discussion with DocLab’s mastermind, Caspar Sonnen, provided me with a useful inside: the question might not be to know what VR can do, but rather what it cannot do.

Here is an extract from the conversation we had:

Caspar Sonner: The problem with the hype on VR at the moment is that we get the backslash with the promises it is not able to keep for now (people do get sick, it is not interactive enough etc.). But those are not a good reason to abandon it. There is nothing wrong with VR, it is just a piece of technology. This is the same that I have seen for so many years in interactive. Some people were saying “it is so much better than linear because people actually engage with their stories and that way they can really make connections and change the world”. No. Again, it is just another medium. Not better than a film or a book. They all have things that are medium specific and they all have things that they can’t do.

The question that I am not hearing enough, and I wish people would ask more, is: “what is the thing that VR is actually incapable of doing?”.

Because if we can answer that, we can start understanding what this medium is all about. (…)

What makes books great? That they do not have pictures, so they force your brain to generate your own images and by doing so they become hugely intimate and immersive. They are great solitary and personal experiences and that is what makes them so special! (…)

With VR we are not really quite sure yet what it can do because the medium is still very fluid and still unrefined.

This is an interesting point indeed. If we step outside of the usual black and white pros & cons discussion we might manage to see how a new platform can be used to position us into a new media paradigm.


So… I am now going through my memories of the projects that I have experienced at DocLab: LoVR, Witness 360, Waves of Garce, The Unknown Photographer, DMZ, Drawing Room, RevoVR: Mosul and The Enemy (more here on all of them)… what is it that they could not do?

Hummm…. They could make me feel there, but I felt useless and mainly observing – which is a frustrating sensation, because when I am somewhere with my body I also can act with it. So what VR could NOT DO is to make me feel myself in those situations.

Secondly, most experiences where curated but “un-storyfied” (does this word exist? I’ll leave it here because it says what I want to say): I could see, turn, at times click on an option, but over all there was more an experience than a story. There were some examples where a voice-over was actually leading me through the story (LoVR, Witness 360, Waves of Grace) and those felt like if a friend was walking with me and explaining his/er point of view on what I was seeing.

So maybe what VR is not very good at is at telling stories? This sounds a bit weird… It can direct my glance, give me options, offer me sensations… but in order to work it needs to leave me the time to feel, think and move as if I was there, so maybe the narrator becomes a companion rather than a guide?

What else can VR NOT do?

 VR transports us into another reality, so it cannot concentrate in our own present reality. If it is based in escapism it cannot afford actual presence. The here and now cannot be in the real here and now. So we loose ourselves in the construction of someone else.

Personally, I think VR would fascinate me more if it could make me see my own reality differently. If it could show me how I am an active constructor of my own world then it would add a layer of awareness that it does not have at the moment.

Maybe awareness is my own obsession, and the whole point of VR is the opposite – be someone else, somewhere else… but I think that a medium that is based on visual immersion can do more than create new visual realities. If it started by deconstructing our own visual mechanisms it would help us to do what we cannot do without technical intervention: use our senses to see beyond our senses…

This is where technology really becomes an extension of the body: when it changes our own understanding of the world around us.

To VR or not to VR, this is not the question. What should we VR, and how should we?


Sandra Gaudenzi