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Venice VR Expanded: Visiting a virtual film festival

BEAT. Photo credit: HTC.

My immersive colleagues always rated Venice Film Festival as a lot of fun. The glitz and glamour of intermingling stars and flashing shoots sparked a fun sense of wonder in my mind. But critically, Venice Film Festival has been supporting the immersive arts for several years. I have a lot of respect for that.

Yes, the global pandemic ruptured the festival this year. No visitors can pay a visit to the tourist site, sip prosecco, or sit in the gondolas. But in a way, the crisis also prompted festivals to provide a virtual equivalent. A range of partners, from HTC to VRrOOm, provided the capabilities to deliver the event in VR. Here are my thoughts from dipping my toes into the canals of films and experiences.

VR makes a new impression

When guests pop into VRChat – one of several ways to experience the festival – they slide into the city via a gondola. Michel Reilhac and Liz Rosenthal give their welcome, alongside instructions to participate in the event. Clear and concise, it eased me into the virtual world.

After the trip, I was then teleported to an exhibition hall where I can walk down the corridor with several doors. Above me was a clear blue sky, while a (literal) red carpet led me from place to place. Each door leads to a mini-world, with an experience inspired by one of the artworks selected by the Biennale. I considered these as appetisers to the full experience, a short hors d’oeuvre to the full course.

There were two other worlds for accredited guests. One is a meeting-place hosting workshops and chit-chat. The other is for the main parties at the beginning and end of the event.

I was really impressed by the VRChat functionality, and it worked seamlessly to deliver the event. My friend at The Ghost Howls points out that VRChat is really good because of its passionate community, Unity support, and multi-device support that eased access. I can see the appeal, and I look forward to further VRChat updates that can help create bigger and better worlds.

Alien Rescue. Photo credit: HTC.
Alien Rescue. Photo credit: HTC.

Viveport and Viveport Video

HTC partnered with the festival to deliver a 100% virtual event, with 25 interactive experiences via Viveport and nine 360-degree productions via Viveport Video. I found it easy to access all of them, and I dabbled in the selected productions for this years’ show.

Gnomes and Goblins was a headliner experience, directed by John Favreau. It felt strange to be a giant among the little beings, stomping around as they gazed up at me with wide eyes. The short puzzles helped to keep it move along, and jumping through portals to new locations felt great.

I have a soft spot for Lucid, an adventure where the main character dives into the consciousness of their comatose mother as they find a way to help her to safety. The art style pops with flair and fun, and the adventure made me feel like I was soaring through a spaceship. Another great piece from the amazing team at Breaking Forth.

What I found striking about this year was the diverse experiences. From short bits on cycling models, to trippy beats that swerve to and fro – the diversity of VR is striking.

It reminds me of an old debate; why do animated movies have its own category? An animated movie isn’t a genre; it works with multiple genres, all at once. I feel the same is happening with VR; though arguably it is so different to its 2D counterparts that it makes sense to judge them in different ways.

Gnomes & Goblins. Photo credit: HTC.
Gnomes & Goblins. Photo credit: HTC.

Venice VR Expanded

Ultimately, Venice VR Expanded was a lot of fun this year. After each festival, I feel incredibly inspired by immersive as art, able to deliver new and exciting feelings in truly compelling ways. Raindance Film Festival confirms the same to me each year.

A question that comes to mind is the direction of VR and the arts. The key is adoption. As more headsets are bought, more people can access the interesting arts that are on display around the world. But significantly, Venice VR Expanded makes a compelling case that virtual events should run alongside the in-person physical variants from now onwards.

Disclaimer: HTC provided me with VR equipment to help me experience the event. Additionally, I am currently working as a festival publicist for LFF’s XR strand. I have endeavoured to ensure that neither influenced my thoughts on this event.