“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
As soon as I got my Galaxy S7, the only thing I could think about was the Gear VR. By the time the heat from the its first charge had dissipated, I had already grown not-as-impressed with the ‘phone’ aspect of my new phone. See, my brain places me just short of ‘booze and dope addict’, but lands me squarely in the middle of ‘person who becomes uncomfortably obsessed with new gaming paraphernalia.’ Thus I found myself staring at my S7, an impressive gadget by any standards, completely unable to appreciate the damn thing due to the salesman’s soothing voice echoing through the hollow caverns of my brain: “Fully VR compatible man… fully VR compatible.” Then I blacked out completely and came to in my living room, box in hand, wallet short a hundred bucks.
Let’s blow through the boring tech talk as quickly as possible: The Gear VR feels good. It’s easy to hook up and there are no wires and it doesn’t drain your battery that much and it’s good, ok? Ok. There’s also a reasonable amount of content already available on the store, which means you’ll probably get a big dopey look on your face like I did when I loaded up the menu and immediately came to the realization that we now live in a world with fucking VR. The first thing I noticed was game called School of Rugby. I chuckled at the potential funny article I might write about it. The idea of Jake (a kind of un-athletic guy) being shouted at by a group of Australian Rugby players until he’s forced to relive all of his middle school insecurities… hilarious. Unfortunately it’s just a game that expects you to stand up and pivot your upper-body repeatedly, all the while completely blind to the world around you; the potential for injury is just too great. That is why I will instead be reviewing the VR short film I Am You.
I Am You is the story of a young couple; they are the first to experiment with a new kind of technology that allows you to swap bodies with another person. As the film opens, you are sitting in a movie theater watching the story unfold on a giant screen in front of you, which is a setup I imagine will be one of the most popular mainstream functions of VR. I cannot wait to watch a 3D version of The Martian in a movie theater as I am flying home to visit my parents for Passover. I also cannot wait to be the first person seen wearing a virtual reality headset on an airplane (for maybe 15 – 20 people on that particular flight). Anyways.
The themes of I Am You are glaringly relevant: real experiences vs. virtual or “altered” ones. She wants to go grab coffee with bae, but he’s hell-bent on trying this experimental app first. Already the film was hitting way too close to home for me. Just the night before I had texted a friend these exact words: “Do you want to try VR?” It felt like I was pushing some sort of new drug on her. You know, the kind of drugs that exist in 1980’s movies about the future. And this film does a really nice job of setting up the social tension between those who prefer a virtual experience vs. those who would rather not, thank you very much. It makes you wonder how VR might change the dynamic of a particular relationship because, in its current form, the technology has the potential to be extremely anti-social.
About halfway through the movie, the young man convinces his girlfriend to swap bodies with him and you, as a viewer, are thrust into a Being John Malkovich situation. You find yourself, as the young woman, now inhabiting the body of the young man. This was the “oh shit” moment for me: experiencing this girl I’d previously been watching from the safety of a movie theater now running her fingers up my virtual arm. Well, actually, it was really the dude (now inhabiting the girl’s body) running his fingers up my arm. In the film, you don’t actually control your head movement, but I felt the filmmaker did a competent job of deciding where I should be looking. The soft light from the window reflecting off our now interwoven hands. The way she was looking into my eyes. Er, the way he was. But the dissonance of being so ‘right there’ with someone and at the same time so fucking alone in my apartment with fucking goggles over my face was too great for my little bird brain to bare. My eyes welled up with tears. I was moved in a very peculiar way. My immediate next thought was: “VR Porn will destroy us all.” It was a potent but fleeting thought.
Back to my girlfriend. I mean, my boyfriend in my body. Now we’re fighting. Great. He wants to go out and experience the world as me and I want to stay here and experience him, as me. He’s walking away now, leaving me in the sun-washed living room alone. A moment of sadness hits me by surprise as I watch him go. Another ‘oh shit’ moment. If I had been watching this on a flat screen I don’t think the actors’ performances, while not bad, would have affected me in such a way. I race to the window to watch him go. Just walking across the goddamn living room feels like I’m pulling seven G’s. Sheesh. Not only did I travel all the way to a virtual world just to get into a petty argument with my loved one, but now I’m also feeling the same nausea I experience after most meals. My virtual hand pounds against the glass. But it’s too late. She’s gone. He’s gone. Whatever. And then it’s over. I hover in a black void as I watch gigantic credits scroll by. Credits look way cooler in virtual reality.
While not perfect, I Am You serves as a solid proof of concept: being a participant instead of an observer makes narrative experiences way more intense. Future VR filmmakers will have to be careful not to fling people around the room at 50mph (or even 5mph), but the human connection displayed here is a powerful promise of things to come. I Am You begs the question: do you prefer a virtual experience? Or a real one? As I write this, I’m picturing her soft hands gently gliding up my arm; a memory. A memory I didn’t have before I put on the headset, and certainly not in the same category as one of ‘going to the movies.’ It makes me believe that this technology, when combined with masterful storytelling, has the potential to heal our psyche in a way that’s been unavailable until now; I really do believe that. Well, until the porn hits.