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At Tribeca, VR is something you have to feel to believe

Of the best virtual reality at the Tribeca Film Fest, some of the top projects hinged on creating an experience you can't duplicate at home.

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A Tribeca Film Fest attendee and an actor in a motion-capture suit embrace in the experience "Draw Me Close."

Ron Antonelli for NFB and National Theatre

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival collected virtual reality that could reach out and hug you.

Every year, the festival gathers a slate of interactive storytelling into a darkly lit, packed room, called Tribeca Immersive. In recent years, this program has featured an increasing amount of virtual reality -- experiences that use a headset like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to put viewers in the middle of another world.

But at this year's Immersive program, many VR experiences didn't just use headsets -- they used landscapes. A giant foam tree. A bed. A recreation of a New York subway. A mirrored box. In one experience, an actor playing the playwright-director's mother wears a motion-capture suit, so she holds the viewer by the hand in both the virtual world and the real one.

Titled "Draw Me Close," the project does just that: The actor pulls you in for a real hug.

The experiences add a new dimension to virtual reality, allowing the medium to transcend being just a simple digital world for you to visit. VR is one of the hottest trends in tech that's attracted heavy hitters like Facebook, Google and Samsung. One of the biggest impediments to broader adoption is difficulty tracking down the best stuff to try in VR, which is where the Tribeca Film Festival comes in.

The festival's curators sought out projects that experimented with thinking outside just VR to capture a broader idea of immersion, according to Loren Hammonds, a programmer with the event who helps organize the immersive program.

"Everyone is striving to make the virtual environment as realistic as possible," he said.

The curators also wanted to make Tribeca Immersive a destination event by finding "a way to show these pieces out of home that can't be duplicated," he said, in the same way that, at a festival movie screening, the audience is treated to a unreplicable Q&A with creators and cast.

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

Draw Me Close

Portrayed completely in sketches, "Draw Me Close" is a live theater performance produced by the National Theater and the Canadian Film Board using real actors and real furniture but a virtual landscape. Inside your headset is a painted memory-world produced with Google's Tiltbrush program. It recreates playwright/director Jordan Tannahill's childhood home, mapping a virtual space onto an existing room, complete with real objects and people. An actor in a motion-capture suit plays Tannahill's mother from years ago before a terminal cancer diagnosis. She reaches out to me and gives me a real hug: I see her face drawn in VR, but feel her real arms wrap around me.

Virtual reality can trick your vision and hearing and track your movement, but it's not adept with touch. But in "Draw Me Close," I'm inside a real space. When I walk to a door, I feel a real door. I am led to a window to open it, and my fingers touch real metal and glass. As the actor who plays Tannahill's mother leads me by the arm to the living room's carpet, I feel her touch on my arm. The carpet's shag greets my hand. As she tucks me into bed with a real sheet I feel on my hands, I see her disappear through a wall as she tells of enduring abuse that she shielded from her son. I watch her, unable to help.

"Draw Me Close" is immersive theater with a layer of virtual reality: Sometimes awkward and messy, it could be a sign of theater experiments to come. --SS

The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger's Shoes

Virtual reality already has big Hollywood directors hustling in the new format, including Jon Favreau and Steven Spielberg. Tribeca's program this year brought another into the ranks: Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow of "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker." Co-directed with VR filmmaker Imraan Ismail, their documentary short, "The Protectors" depicts the lives of rangers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Trained to assemble firearms while blindfolded, they patrol with guns to protect the park's elephants from poaching, in an area where militant groups stalk the animals to steal their ivory.

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Actor Robert De Niro, one of the Tribeca Film Festival's co-founders, checks out Kathryn Bigelow and Imraan Ismail's "The Protectors: Walk in The Ranger's Shoes."

Sarah Tew/CNET

"The Protectors" is a straightforward VR doc, shown at Tribeca on a strip of turf surrounded by tall grasses. Although the set dressing disappears from view when you put on a Samsung Gear VR headset to watch the piece, the fragrance of the plants and straw around seems to heighten when the experience fires up and you're walking alongside rangers in the grasslands of Africa. --JS

The Island of the Colorblind

One immersive experience at Tribeca wasn't VR at all. Instead, "Colorblind" is a single-room installation-art experience meant to simulate being colorblind. Putting on a pair of headphones, you're guided to paint in watercolor on a variety of black and white postcards while colored light washes over the room. It's an interactive exploration of the real history of Pacific islanders who had achromatopsia, or color blindness, a subject Oliver Sacks explored in a book with the same name. It's also a study on how perception can change in reality with no headset at all. --SS

Treehugger: Wawona

In an installation incorporating a VR headset, hand-tracker gloves, a smell-emitting module and a vibrating vest, the concept of "Treehugger" is (aptly) to experience hugging a tree, dipping your head into its trunk and drifting "into treetime." It's a glowing, trippy view of plant respiration and energy flow, where a giant foam tree in the middle of the room that you can grab or dip your head into to get a peek at its core.

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"Treehugger: Wawona" integrates a headset, vibrating vest and foam tree.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The effect worked, but sometimes the tracking hardware was confused and broke down, causing the VR world to skew sidewise and white out -- effect ruined. With so many pieces of gear in play, Treehugger may be trying for too much for an experience which is meant to evoke meditative awareness. --SS

Arden's Wake

There aren't any haptic bells or aromatic whistles in "Arden's Wake," but the animated near-future fairy tale makes an impression without them. The experience takes place after sea levels have risen above skyscrapers. Heroine Mina and her father live in a homey lighthouse protruding through the ocean's surface, but after he goes missing on a scavenging trip under the waves, Mina descends (and the viewer follows) on her search for him underwater, into a dark world lurking with menace.

The look and feel of "Arden's Wake" is unique among VR animations and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the studio's other projects, like "Allumette" -- a short that generated buzz at Tribeca last year. While most VR animation plants the viewer in the center of a scene and lets it unfold around you, "Arden's Wake" gives you a god-like gaze over its living diorama set. You can walk around Mina's lighthouse and poke your head inside of it, all while Mina and her father play out their roles. The effect is a feeling like you've jumped into a storyteller's imagination and adopted it as your own. --JS

The Last Goodbye

Gently led by an assistant into a giant mirrored room, I put a VR headset on and find myself on a virtual tour of the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. The USC Shoah Foundation recorded the testimony of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter with a 360-degree camera. Creators Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz incorporated that testimony into a photo-real 3D mapping of the Majdanek camp based on high-resolution photography that can be walked through using the Vive hardware's room tracking.

The result is a space that can be slowly walked through, while Gutter narrates his experiences as if he's beside you. Watching it, it's impossible not to be torn between witnessing the camp's rooms and facing Gutter himself -- the instinct is to maintain eye contact with him and focus on his testimony. It's the first attempt by the Shoah Foundation to explore what it means to document the Holocaust using virtual reality. It's intended for museums and public spaces, where the experience can be had while feeling safe and supported by the physical room it's housed in. Shoes are removed before entering, and put on when leaving. As I left, I thought of a room at Majdanek full of thousands of shoes from concentration camp prisoners. --SS

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