If you’re planning on taking in the Seattle International Film Festival this year, be sure to check out the SIFF VR Zone on the first floor of Pacific Place downtown. When you step inside this welcoming pop-up space, you can buy a ticket good for an hour and a half in which you can sample dozens of VR experiences from around the world. Most of the stations include a Gear VR and headphones and a swivel chair, but there are Oculus and Vive stations for the more interactive experiences. Docents circulate to help with the gear, but I found the process of moving from one station to another to be fairly smooth and intuitive, even jumping in and out of different makes of devices.
What struck me most about the SIFF VR Zone was the thoughtful curation. A few weeks ago I was at VRLA and I have to admit I left that conference feeling a bit underwhelmed; I just had no interest in standing in a line for an hour to play some VR shooter game. None of the experiences on display at Pacific Place are shooters, and true to the spirit of SIFF, they represent a diverse array of art from Senegal, Kenya, Canada, China, Australia, Iraq, South Korea, and places in between. Seattle is represented by Scobot, whose enchanting paintscape “World One” allows you to fly through abstract color fields, and Dr. Evie Powell, whose “Epic Snowday Adventure” has come so far from when I first tried it two years ago.
Artful curation is all about making a collection of things equal more than the sum of their parts. The artists who pulled this off so brilliantly for SIFF are Nathaniel Luke Pinzon and Kim Voynar, who collectively helm WonderTek Labs. Kim and Nathaniel’s own work, a 360 video for Seattle pop darlings The Posies, is well worth seeing, too. Their selections for this program of immersive experiences demonstrate their quirky taste, social conscience, and deep understanding of the state of VR art. They really pulled together something great here.
I didn’t get to see everything, and was left wanting more. I found “Everything Flows,” by China’s Yumeng Du, absorbing; its collage aesthetic fuses still images with filmed footage in a way that suggests dreams. “Sun Ladies VR” by Celine Tricart and Christian Stephen is a bracing, inventive documentary short about a militia of women who battle ISIS. In “Queerskins: A Love Story,” you find yourself in the back seat of a car behind a couple grieving for their dead son. The box sitting on the seat beside you is filled with mementos that you can inspect that provide details that go unsaid between the parents. The room you’re sitting in while you experience this is also filled with artifacts, and the chair you sit in is rigged to vibrate to enhance the sensation that you’re in a car. There’s also an interactive video by Billy Corgan, who appears dressed all in white playing a piano like some sort of otherworldly lounge act; student films produced by local VR luninaries SIXR; and “Uplift VR: Maiden Flight,” a virtual hot air balloon ride created by Larry James and Julia Jackson. For this one, you climb inside an actual basket.
I squeezed all I could out of my hour and a half and left duly impressed. VR is still very much going through early growing pains, with no one having quite figured out the right mix of gear, setting, and format for delivering experiences to the public. The SIFF VR Zone is a glimpse at how we might begin to experience virtual worlds in public places.