“There’s minimal editing, because we’re still figuring out how to do it,” James Kaelan, a director who has worked in both film and V.R., told me. “Every transition is still ‘Fade to black,’ ‘Fade up from black,’ like a Jean Renoir film.” Kaelan is exaggerating—“Hard World” and other experiences have used jump cuts, some of which feel more jarring than others. Other V.R. directors are experimenting with what might be called a leap cut, in which the viewer is transported, sometimes with an audible whoosh, from one part of the scene to another. As Julia Kaganskiy, who runs an art-and-technology incubator at the New Museum, put it, “We’re watching the semiotics come together in front of our eyes.”
Wevr’s offices in Venice occupy two former houses a ten-minute walk from each other. Anthony Batt, the head of content, told me that he grew up nearby, in Pacific Palisades, “skateboarding and getting into fights.” He added, “Back then, you didn’t come down here unless you wanted to get your ass whupped.” Now Venice and its environs are nicknamed Silicon Beach. Google and Snapchat own stretches of extravagantly priced real estate, and it’s a seller’s market for cold-pressed juice. The startup culture is at pains to distinguish itself from that of the movie studios half a dozen miles to the east. If a meeting in Culver City begins with an executive offering you a bottle of water and a nondisclosure agreement, you start a meeting in Venice by grabbing a LaCroix seltzer from the communal fridge and pulling up a chair.
On a Friday morning in March, I walked from Wevr’s office on Rose Avenue, a modern cinder-block structure, to its office on Indiana Avenue, a stark trapezoid of corrugated steel set off from the street by two huge succulents and a white picket fence. It was Dennis Hopper’s house until he died, in 2010; his glass tub is still in the upstairs bathroom. Wevr has about fifty employees, and in the past year it has raised more than twenty-five million dollars from investors. “That’s what we’ve announced publicly, but we’re always raising more,” Batt said. (In December, the Times compared the “virtual-reality investment craze” to a gold rush.)
I entered through a side door, passing a single-lane swimming pool and an Astroturf lawn that was being used as a bocce court, and found Batt and Blackaller seated at four white tables that had been pushed together. Next to them was Gautam Chopra, a filmmaker and an entrepreneur who calls himself Gotham. (“I grew up on comic books,” he explained.) He put his BMW keys on the table, set his iPhone to speaker mode, and called his father, the holistic healer Deepak Chopra. The Chopras are working with Wevr on a V.R. meditation experience that will be animated in Unity, the video-game development software. “You put on the headset, and the first thing you hear is Deepak’s voice, guiding you into it,” Batt said. “You float up into the clouds, you see a lotus bud, and a bass sound comes in, very faint.”
“The lotus bud turns into a tree, and you’re surrounded by a kind of green light,” Blackaller said.
“At some point, I would like to guide the person into complete darkness, to experience nothing but the self,” Deepak said, on the phone. “The deeper purpose of this program is realizing that normal reality is virtual reality.”
“Around here, we like to call normal reality ‘current reality,’ ” Batt said.
“Current reality is the matrix of all possibilities,” Deepak said.
“Dope,” Batt said.
Blackaller suggested that, eventually, V.R. software could be calibrated to the user’s body: “There might be ways to keep track of pulse, or galvanic skin response, and deliver different experiences in reaction to that.”
“Nerding out is cool, but let’s get a little grounded,” Batt said. “Could we build a crude version of this in Unity by, like, next Friday? Because certain things either will or won’t make sense, and we won’t know until we throw it in a headset and look around.” They agreed to convene again in a week.
Batt and Blackaller walked to a taco shop a few blocks away. A Samsung Gear headset was hiked up on Blackaller’s forehead, like ski goggles after a completed run.
“I forgot I had this on,” Blackaller said, sheepishly.
“Even I kind of wanna punch you, dude,” Batt said.
Returning to the office, Batt said, “Will we look back at these headsets and laugh at how clunky they were, like cell phones from the eighties? Probably. Will it eventually be a full-room thing, like the Holodeck, or will it be contact lenses that project images onto your eyes? I have no fucking idea. All I know is we’re addicted to technology as a society, and once we move forward we don’t tend to go back.”
I asked whether V.R. would be as transformative as the Internet, and Batt didn’t hesitate. “Let me put it this way,” he said. “It’s not a new way to watch movies, or a new gaming platform. It’s a new medium. How often do new mediums come along?”
There was a clanging sound overhead: water drumming on the steel roof.
“I think it’s raining,” Batt said. “In current reality.”
“Snow Crash,” a 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson, is about people who spend much of their lives inside a digital world called the Metaverse. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, “Ready Player One,” features a virtual society called the OASIS. In these and other sci-fi versions of V.R., all five senses are simulated, and the effect is so potent that people have trouble keeping track of where virtuality ends and reality begins.
Outside of fiction, “virtual reality,” like “angel food” or “infinity pool,” is an evocative phrase that is disappointing if taken literally. An Oculus headset provides no taste and no touch, and it registers only head and hand movement. You never fully lose yourself in the simulation, if only because you’re worried that it’s impossible to look respectable while wearing a plastic face mask.
Primitive head-mounted displays were invented more than half a century ago. The Headsight, built by Philco, in 1961, used magnetic head tracking and separate video projections for each eye. There was a wave of V.R. hype in the eighties, and another one in the nineties, but only in this decade has the technology become sophisticated enough for the wave to crest.
Neville Spiteri, Wevr’s C.E.O., has a background in video-game production. “Around 2010, I started creating a first-person underwater experience,” he told me. “I knew I wanted to make it as immersive as possible, but I didn’t know what that meant in practice. Like, would it be a screen saver?” Spiteri and Batt had worked together years earlier, at a data-analytics startup. Batt, who had also been a digital publisher at Time Inc., recalls, “He showed me some images he was playing around with, and I went, ‘Cool, keep going,’ even though I didn’t really get it.”
In 2012, a nineteen-year-old named Palmer Luckey started a campaign on Kickstarter, asking for help to fund hardware that he was building in his parents’ garage: “Oculus Rift, the first truly immersive virtual-reality headset for video games.” Anyone who pledged at least three hundred dollars would be sent a “developer kit”—a prototype with instructions on how to code for it. Spiteri received a kit in early 2013. “It took a few weeks to port the underwater thing into it,” he said. “As soon as I put it on, I went, ‘O.K., this is what I do now.’ ” Wevr was born, and Spiteri’s underwater animation became a V.R. experience called “theBlu.” The following year, Facebook bought Oculus for two billion dollars. “That was the moment when everyone, including us, went, ‘Holy shit, this V.R. thing is not a drill,’ ” Batt said.
At one point in Venice, Jake Rowell, an art director, helped me into an HTC Vive and invited me to try out “theBlu.” It felt like a walk-in aquarium. For a few minutes, I stood on an underwater reef, poking at a school of pink jellyfish; then I was deep in an ocean trench, using my hand controller as a flashlight while I crouched to look for sea turtles. Because I was breathing normally, I could almost imagine that my headset was functioning as a scuba mask.
I spent a few minutes waiting for something to happen. Then I realized that this—the sunlight penetrating the water, the exquisitely rendered fluid dynamics—was the experience. It was far more enticing than a screen saver, but without a narrative it was hard to know whether, or why, I should keep going. Rowell stood a few feet away, gauging my reaction. It was as if I had been blindfolded and led to a park bench, only to be judged on how strongly I was reacting to the birdsong. “theBlu” felt more like a demonstration of current technology than like a harbinger of the medium’s future: such tranquil experiences will soon have to compete against V.R. sports, V.R. concerts, V.R. shooting games, and V.R. porn.
Oculus now has its own building on the Facebook campus, in Silicon Valley, and its ambitions have grown well beyond video games. Every new employee is given a copy of “Ready Player One.” Along with computer-vision engineers and diffractive-optics experts, the company employs about thirty people in a storytelling division called Oculus Story Studio. Saschka Unseld, the studio’s creative director, worked at Pixar for nearly six years; at Oculus, he makes short Pixaresque V.R. animations. The first of these, “Henry,” is about a porcupine who wants to make friends. “The goal was to do something funny and physical, almost like the old silent films,” Unseld told me. “But it turns out that what’s funny on a movie screen is not necessarily funny in an immersive environment. If Charlie Chaplin falls on his face, you can laugh at him. If you’re in the space and someone falls on their face right next to you, you feel concern.” Unseld has decided that he prefers V.R. experiences in which the characters somehow acknowledge the viewer. “If you aren’t ever acknowledged, it actually feels more artificial, like the characters are respecting a fourth wall that isn’t there,” he said. “We’re always learning things like this, and we’re always having conceptual discussions about what they mean, but ultimately we make decisions by trying things and seeing how they feel.”
In March, I attended a conference about V.R. at the New Museum, on the Bowery. One of the organizers, Jamin Warren, the founder of the video-game magazine Kill Screen, asked if current V.R. technology would disappoint users whose appetites have been whetted by science fiction. Andrew Schoen, a tech investor, said, “There’s going to be a classic hype cycle. Six months, a year from now, people might be saying, ‘V.R. totally didn’t live up to our expectations. V.R. is dead.’ Then, in five years, people will be able to produce the technology, and the content, to meet what are now overinflated expectations.”
Also at the conference was Janet Murray, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech who has a nimbus of gray hair. She is the author of a cult classic among V.R. nerds, “Hamlet on the Holodeck” (1997), in which she speculates about the rich cybernarratives that technology will eventually enable. “Every age seeks out the appropriate medium in which to confront the unanswerable questions of human existence,” she writes. “The format that most fully exploits the properties of digital environments is not the hypertext or the fighting game but the simulation: the virtual world full of interrelated entities, a world we can enter, manipulate, and observe in process.” Just as a novel can include poetry, dialogue, and essayistic argument, a V.R. narrative could be capacious enough to incorporate animation, video games, documentary, and other visual media.