To many, Virtual Reality may seem like no more than a gimmick, but after a trip to the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival’s Virtual Reality Studio I argue that it’s amazing, it’s here to stay and that it’s already changing the way we consume news and documentaries.
The Edinburgh Digital Festival (EDEF) is one of the latest additions to the wealth of festivals and events that this city plays host to every August. Offering, in their own words, a combination of “arts, entertainment and technology”, they aim to “showcase the best of what is happening right now and provoke the conversation about what comes next”. At EDEF, this takes the shape of a street cinema hosted in a lorry, games workshops and a tech hub offering the chance to interact with ‘future’ tech.
Our enduring fascination with virtual reality
I however had come there for one thing and one thing only: Virtual Reality. When I was little, virtual reality seemed like the kind of impossible technology that was the reserve of cheesy 90s movies wanting to seem futuristic. Case in point: one gloriously strange episode of Murder She Wrote features Angela Lansbury’s murder mystery writer/solver writing a virtual reality game entitled ‘A Murder at Hastings Rock’ for a VR headset startup. Suddenly, with the meteoric rise of Oculus Rift and VR headsets like it, that Murder She Wrote episode has gone from laughably unlikely to not far off the mark.
Meeting Michael Fassbender (sort of)
The EDEF VR Studio offers you the chance to “explore innovative documentaries, playful animation and hair-raising experiences”. After having chosen my first film at random, I was transported to a city street at night, surrounded suddenly by traffic and the soundscape of a bustling city. I barely had time to look around, familiarising myself with the seamless 360 view, before I rose through the air, seeing the street I had just been standing on grow smaller and smaller and eventually disappear beneath me. As someone with a moderate fear of heights, this was a tense yet thrilling experience.
I rose above the clouds to see… Michael Fassbender floating in front of me. And Melissa McCarthy leisurely gliding past on my right. Needless to say, my first choice of film had been one of the stranger offerings on the programme. After hanging out with celebrities in the sky, I worked my way through the rest of the programme, experiencing everything from swimming with dolphins to being taken on a tour through the Calais migrant camp.
The many uses of virtual reality
Though many of the films, like a trip up the very top of the One World Trade Center, seemed to be there mainly to showcase the thrillingly immersive nature of the VR headset, my biggest take-away from the experience was how well suited the format was to documentaries. Putting the viewer inside the story you want to tell makes it so much more real. The empathy that I imagine so many documentary makers want to elicit from viewers comes much more easily when it feels like you’re standing right next to the person telling their story. Even major news outlets have caught on to this, with Guardian famously producing a VR experience of a 6×9 feet US solitary confinement cell and NYT Magazine editor Jake Silverstein referring to VR as an “empathy machine”.
Regardless of whether you prefer using VR to take thrilling rollercoaster rides, play games or to experience the battle of Falluja with the NYT VR app, VR is here to stay. Now the real question is: What else did Murder She Wrote predict?
The Virtual Reality Studio at the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival runs until the 28th of August at the Assembly Rooms so you’ve still got a couple of days to check it out.