I now believe that this is the moment virtual reality will catch on.
My realisation came over the weekend at my friend Brad’s house. He’d been raving about Google Cardboard, the virtual reality apparatus that arrived with his Sunday New York Times, since he got it earlier this month.
He told me I had to sit down on the couch and try it out.
He loaded an app on his iPhone, put it in the Cardboard, and handed me some earbuds.
I began watching “Catatonic,” and I was immediately terrified.
The eight minute film, by the virtual reality production company Vrse, is from the perspective of a patient at a dilapidated insane asylum. That is, you’re strapped to a wheelchair, and you’re getting pushed by an orderly through your new home.
“See, it’s not all bad,” the orderly says as he wheels you through the dark hallways and past patients, screaming, writhing on the floor, or strapped naked to a table. Without giving too much away — yes, it does seem “all bad.”
Because you’re wearing goggles and the sensors in your phone detect movement and direction, the scene changes depending on where you look. You can look down at your hands strapped into the wheelchair or behind you to see who’s pushing you. You can peer up to the right to stare at a patient screaming at you, or quickly look away because it’s deeply unsettling. (You’ll still hear it though.)
The experience is sort of like “choose your own adventure” haunted house, and it’s very disturbing.
I have tried virtual reality before, but only in the form of simple games. It was a cool experience, but the appeal seemed limited. It also made me a bit nauseous.
“Catatonic” is different because it’s a movie, but you can’t watch the same thing twice. You’ll have two different experiences watching it two different times. For example, after I had finished “Catatonic,” my friend Brad asked me how I’d liked a certain part. I actually hadn’t seen what he was referring to, because I hadn’t looked behind me at a specific moment.
The same can be said of what The New York Times did earlier this month with its VR stories about vigils in Paris and millions of children displaced by war — you’ll have different experiences based on where you look.
The Times isn’t alone in experimenting with VR — some of the biggest tech and media companies, like Netflix, Facebook, which owns the VR company Oculus, Microsoft, Hulu, and 20th Century Fox, are working on VR.
Inexpensive technology like Cardboard, support from tech and media giants, and the proliferation of smartphones could help usher in a new era of virtual reality.
And you don’t have to have Cardboard to watch “Catatonic” — you can watch it online. The experience isn’t the same as watching it in VR, but it’s still disturbing.
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