And now for a quick peek into the future…

This week, I was able to check out the virtual reality (VR) offerings of Tribeca Film Festival’s Storyscapes segment, which will be open until April 17th.

So many filmmakers are either toying with the idea of working with the new technology or are in production. Of course, with any new technology, there’s lot of grey creative area when the technology is so new and leading the way. Currently, it’s more of a gimmick, the sort we see at film festivals or trade shows.

Talking with VR filmmakers at Storyscapes, which was curated by Tribeca’s visionary interactive guru, Ingrid Kopp, it feels like we’re entering the Wild West. Anything goes. Some dude tinkering in his basement in Dublin is here. Big companies like Google and Amazon are throwing money into the arena, putting their stamp on things. Smaller outfits are cozying up with filmmakers, trying to find a way in for themselves.

This has been building over the past two or so years, and the best example of a major doc filmmaker taking the plunge has been Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel). Swooning over VR, she’s been touting her recent experience making A History of Cuban Dance, a short VR doc that she made in Cuba while working on a feature follow-up doc to The Buena Vista Social Club. A rough cut of A History of Cuban Dance, which you can watch in 360 online, premiered at Sundance this year.

There are others toeing the water. Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again) started his own company, Condition One, which made a film of the same name that brings you into various immersive experiences like being in a buffalo herd or in a ballet studio.

The best bit of nonfiction VR I saw at Storyscapes was “6 x 9,” which simulates the experience of being in solitary confinement.This bit of creative VR inspiration comes from the studio The Mill, which worked in collaboration with The Guardian. It’s a fantastic indicator of how good VR docs might be one day. You put on your VR goggles and experience a 6 by 9 jail cell, complete with sounds of fellow inmates off in the distance. The visuals are compelling; as you hear an inmate reflect on his experiences, you see images on the wall. Cracks appear. Hallucinations. Text appears, giving statistical and thematic information that engages but doesn’t impede the experience.

Particularly riveting is the way the madness of solitary confinement is invoked; having an out-of-body experience in VR is quite a disturbing trip. Some are calling VR, “empathy machines,” and I can see why.

It’s the most effective bit of nonfiction VR I’ve experienced so far. And it makes me hunger for a full-length feature, but I’m told the technology (even the goggle devices need to be improved) isn’t up to speed. And audiences aren’t really there yet, either. (But I am!)

That doesn’t mean that major changes can’t happen soon. How far out are we from a feature VR documentary? A year? Two?

Grabbing the bull by the horns, Gary Hustwit (Helvetica) announced last week his new VR studio, Scenic, a launching platform of VR films, with the emphasis that he’s got the content-providers on board to give VR real stories to tell.

One of the Tribeca filmmakers referred to Scenic as a VR doc “super group,” which I found hilarious. Scenic directors include Amir Bar-Lev, Marshall Curry, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing and Liz Garbus. I’m waiting to hear if Paul McCartney and Keith Richards will be joining them.

Indeed, there’s much to come. I didn’t even get a chance to preview Tribeca’s “Virtual Arcade,” which hosts even more VR filmmaking than Storyscapes. You can read about what’s on offer there here, available from April 18th to April 23rd.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen