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Virtual reality at Tribeca: Don't buy the hype? Try $40 for a timed ticket

Consumers have yet to embrace virtual reality, but a ticket to a festival like Tribeca can unlock the best VR around that even a headset can't buy.

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The Day the World Changed, a piece in of Tribeca's curation of VR, explores nuclear proliferation today through the lens of examining the impact of the Hiroshima attack. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Storytellers piqued by virtual reality's capabilities are throwing themselves headlong into a unfamiliar format, but the places they're screening their work are very familiar territory.

The Tribeca Film Festival, which closed Saturday in New York, again brought together a selection of some of the most promising virtual reality being made. But Tribeca isn't alone. Film festivals in Toronto, Venice, Cannes and Los Angeles, plus South by Southwest in Texas and Sundance in Utah -- anywhere that filmmakers once flocked for the prestige of a festival screening, now offer curations of the best VR.

VR may be one of the hottest trends in tech, but consumers haven't embraced the format nearly as enthusiastically as tech giants like Facebook, Google and Samsung have. Sophisticated virtual-reality headsets, and the computers to power them, can set you back hundreds of dollars.

Or you can drop $40 on a timed ticket to see VR that even a headset won't buy you.

CNET's Scott Stein and Joan E. Solsman toured most of the experiences in Tribeca's Immersive program. Here were some of the most notable.

Jack

Someday, VR and theater may fully intertwine. Baobob's Jack is another step toward improvisational acting in an open VR space, and it wasn't like anything I've ever done before.

Much like last year's Tribeca-performed theater piece Draw Me Close, Jack blends real actors and the participant in a real space that's mapped onto a virtual world. It's like a virtual universe you can reach out and touch.

I put on a VR backpack and headset, entering the stage setting as a free-walking explorer into a rickety cartoon VR house. I didn't wear gloves or have controllers: instead, a Leap Motion hand-tracker could sense where my hands were. A frog-mom pushed her broom, hitting my real feet with it. A dangling bulb above me, in VR, hit my real face....because a real bulb was placed in the same spot. I ended up having to sell my family's radio to a sinister trader in an airship, and I haggled for real, holding all the props in my hands. I was able to go "off script" because I had no script and these were real actors.

Is this the future of virtual immersion, or of immersive theater, or both? Jack was a wild hybrid. -SS

Hero

Hero is an open-space VR experience. You can walk around, touch things and explore a large-scale space, but it's not a playground. It's a visceral experience, designed to make you feel the impact of war.

Set on a separate floor of the Tribeca Film Festival, Hero first began generating buzz at Sundance, where it premiered. Like Jack, it incorporates HP's Z VR Backpack, so the computer powering the the visual experience moves with you wherever you walk.

Suited up in the VR system and helmet that felt like armor, I stepped up a ramp, guided by real people I couldn't see, until I ended up in a courtyard in Syria in VR. The panoramic headset and the graphics made me conscious it wasn't "real," but all the things that happened after seared away awareness of artifice: a bomb from a helicopter that sent real grit and wind in my face. I walked through the rubble, stepping along a ledge and grabbing a wall, as a crying man pleaded with me to save someone beneath a crumbled wall.

As I reached out to her hand, a real hand grappled with mine. And the bar I lifted was made of actual metal. She escaped, and I found myself being led away, freed from my VR helmet and backpack and left to rest in a recovery room. I was invited to tie a piece of cloth I carried with me through the experience to some tangled rebar in the room. Unexpectedly, I burst into tears. I didn't feel like a hero, maybe that's what it was. Or, maybe, VR's emotional impact is hard to explain sometimes.

BattleScar

One of my favorite experiences at Tribeca had no bells and whistles other than inventive storytelling taking the best advantage of VR.

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BattleScar, an VR homage to 1970s punk, is the first of a three-part series. 

BattleScar

BattleScar takes its cues, both in setting and style, from '70s punk. With zine-style scrawling text floating in midair to punctuate important dialogue, whiplash-fast jumps propel the plot forward like power chords slamming into their next progression.

An animation narrated in the first-person by Lupe, a Puerto Rican runaway in 1978 New York voiced by Rosario Dawson. Homeless, hungry and picked up for vagrancy, Lupe allies herself with punk cellmate Debbie after they're both turned out from their juvenile detention center onto the streets of the Lower East Side and Alphabet City. Lupe quickly wins your loyalty as the viewer's proxy by playing to the universal sentiment of feeling like an outcast on the verge of finding a subculture where your hidden talents are revered. (Didn't everyone feel that way as a teen?)

An experience that first premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, the short is the first of a three-part series. -JS

Lambchild Superstar

One of my barometers for successful VR is that you want to dive back in as soon as it ends. It's not a perfect litmus test -- it doesn't suit narrative storytelling that follows a defined story arc, or pieces that stick in your mind for months, but aren't really experiences you want to repeat.

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Lambchild Superstar is a collaborative virtual music-making experience.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The experience at Tribeca that passed this test was (strap yourself in for this title) Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow. It's the brainchild of Damian Kulash of the band OK Go, known for impeccably choreographed music videos, and VR heavyweight Chris Milk of Within, who directed music videos for the likes of Kanye West in his previous life.

Their social, interactive experience lets you create music with a friend in a farcical land of percussive lemmings, cows that fart guitar-solo rainbows and other bizarre Rube Goldberg contraptions that produce different musical elements when you fiddle with them.

Lambchild Superstar is inventive, sometimes in unexpected silly ways like its goofy form of VR locomotion. In Lambchild, you can also move by pumping your arms at your sides, like you're pantomiming an Olympic racewalker. When you do, your hiphop lamb avatar moves forward. It's one goofy facet of an experience packed with silliness, but the physical involvement helps cast off inhibitions. All the better to jam with a rainbow-farting cow.

Objects in mirror AR closer than they appear

This adaptation of critically acclaimed stage show The Object Lesson overlays tech on top of its original concept. Starting life as a theatrical performance set in a world of cluttered things that audience members could explore, at Tribeca's showcase it was an installation art piece made from pieces of The Object Lesson's set -- a maze of boxes, drawers and cluttered piles.

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"Objects in mirror AR closer than they appear" fuses augmented-reality technology with an immersive theater installation.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Visitors can grab a 3D viewer, basically Google Cardboard placed inside older wooden boxes and masks. Near certain marker-coded objects, the viewer plays a 360-degree video: In a closet of tall boxes and a calendar, a vacation movie plays on a beach. In a cubby of boxes, I stick my head in and see, in my viewer, a man opening his own box, peeking in.

Some interactive parts don't involve the viewer at all: an antique phone invites me with a written message to call a number. A table has a book with instructions to take all the things out of my pockets and name them, one by one. The idea is fascinating, if imperfect. But it illustrates the power of old, real things over virtual ones. --SS

VR Therapy: Vestige and Where Thoughts Go

Two Tribeca VR selections invited participants to share intimate thoughts anonymously, in experiences that pondered love and loss.

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Vestige tries to replicate what it's like inside the mind of a woman as she remembers her lost love.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The piece Vestige puts viewers inside a void, the recorded memories of a woman come to visual life as she remembers how she fell in love with her husband, Erik; how she lost him; and how she grieved him, in all the contradictions that an unexpected death provokes. As you watch the recollections unfold, your actions trigger which memories -- and which facets of the couples' story -- are revealed. Designed to mimic how memory works in the mind, the experience ends with an invitation to enter a phone booth to share a memory of somebody you've lost.

Where Thoughts Go is premised on a similar sharing of ideas. Wearing the headset inside a small tent-like room, the experience places you inside a minimalist landscape where you're surrounded by small orbs. When you reach out and touch them, each one plays anonymous voice messages left by someone else sitting in the same experience, answering questions like "Why did you first fall in love?" To move forward to the next question and set of recordings, you're encouraged to bring your palms together and murmur your own answer into your cupped hands. -JS

Queerskins: a love story

A combination installation art space and VR creation, Queerkskins starts in a hallway where visitors are handed a map on a newspaper before entering a room mimicking the bedroom of real-life Sebastian, an AIDS victim from a rural Missouri family. You're invited to find pictures, open drawers and closets, and listen to music. The set is designed to connect visitors to his life and story before you sit down in the next room in a VR headset that places you in the backseat of a car Sebastian's parents are driving as they argue.

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Participants in Queerskins: A Love Story get to know a mother's estranged son who died of AIDS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the car, boxes of objects appear that can be picked up and examined. The landscape outside, rural and sad, rolls by. As I left the experience, a photographer asked me to pick one object I connected with. For me, it was a stuffed-animal bunny. I picked it up, held it, put it back. In some way, it connected me to the world, before I left. --SS

Biidaaban: First Light

What does a future Toronto look like post-apocalypse? In Biidaaban, a series of quiet, 3D landscapes manifest around me, alone, on rooftops, in subway stations, in an overgrown city.

Messages appear. Seeming to come from this future civilization hinted at on the edges of the landscapes, they're actually sayings from native peoples in the Toronto area. It's a reflection on the future being a continuation of the past. As I leave, I pass through a dark room, where a real turtle is in a tank. It seems more vibrant than the VR I just experienced. Is that the idea, to pay attention to nature more, the parts of life we overlook too much?

Director Lisa Jackson, who developed Biidaaban with the National Film Board of Canada, told me "A+ for analysis." --SS

Fire Escape

This 20-minute experience is like Rear Window in VR.

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Fire Escape lets the viewer peek into different apartment windows as a mystery unfolds.  

Sarah Tew/CNET

I stand on a real metal scaffold, with a Google's Mirage Solo standalone VR headset on my head. The headset (coming out soon) allows some movement but not too much: hence, standing still on a fire escape made for a perfect use case. I can peek in on apartments around me and zoom in to listen to their stories. It's hypnotizing, and strange. A Ione woman, who seems to specialize in Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response whispers in my ear as she tells me what's going on. A murder mystery unfolds, and that's where the story lost steam for me.

But the idea, of peeking into other lives, was surprisingly effective. --SS

Terminal 3

Terminal 3 is a fascinating exploration of the fuzzy lines between virtual and real.

I'm led into a questioning room as if I'm a customs officer at an airport. It's sparse: an empty desk, a stool. With Microsoft Hololens and headphones, a person materializes sitting in front of me, a half-drawn hologram. I'm given the choice of two different questions to ask her on the display, as I start with a customs-style interview. And through those prompts and responses, I learn snatches from her life. The more I learn, the more she gradually gains form and color, until I can see her completely.

But I'm interrupted by my superiors, and I fall back into customs mode. Her image fades away, into harsh lines. I have to cast judgment: Is she free to go or not?

The installation piece uses real testimonies from six different people. My interview was with Helya, an Iranian actress from Los Angeles. I felt like I was starting to know her, but the most stunning part was, when I put my headset down and exited the room, she was there, on a stool, to greet me. I said to her "It was good to talk to you." But I never really talked to her, in person, at all. Faced with the real person, I suddenly wondered about all my decisions and realized that there was nothing really virtual about any of it. Did I do a good enough job? And did I really know Helya? By blurring the lines between virtual and real, Terminal 3 crystalized how much we really know about ourselves and others. --SS

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