How Tribeca's VR award winner The Key made magic out of metaphor

The Key, a heavily metaphorical take on the refugee experience in virtual reality, was one of Tribeca's breakout successes. Here's the story behind it.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

At the makeshift border camp in Horgos, Serbia, a refugee boy built toys out of boxes.

Shara Tibken/CNET

The toy trucks were patched together out of used boxes and Band-Aids.

They're the objects I remember most from the Horgos refugee camp in Serbia. A boy, whose family had lived in the tents there for months already, crafted them so he and his brother would have something to play with.

I'd visited the camp in 2016 to learn how technology played a role in the wave of refugees cresting over Europe. The most striking objects were like those trucks: out-in-the-open reminders of how the families there endured their limbo. They jury-rigged whatever emblems of normalcy they could.

Nearly three years later, a virtual-reality experience at the Film Festival -- The Key -- taught me that the most meaningful objects in that camp were ones I never saw. They were mundane relics so treasured they wouldn't be revealed to an outsider parachuting in for a single day.


Celine Tricart directed The Key.

Kristina Loggia/Tribeca

"Most refugees -- even though they will never go back home, or their house is destroyed by war or being taken by other people -- most of them cannot let go of the key to their house," director and producer Celine Tricart said in an interview last week.

That concept -- a refugee's unusable key -- was the seed to Tribeca's breakout success. The Key became one of Tribeca's most buzzed-about projects in the Immersive program, a showcase of tech-heavy projects exploring emerging formats like VR, augmented reality or 360-degree video. Thursday, The Key won the festival's Storyscapes competition, the top prize awarded to one of a handful of projects selected for their innovative approaches to storytelling.

The Key integrates more than VR. You enter a misty room wearing a neckband speaker that begins the story's narration and music. You're alone with a woman in a simple tunic, and she acts out the first-person narrator's cues. She shows you a large key in her hand when the narrator mentions it, for example.

And she helps you put the VR headset on. The headset's soundtrack syncs with the speaker collar you're wearing -- one of the most clever ways I've seen for a VR project to ease the often-clunky transition from the real world into virtual reality .

The VR itself is an allegorical animation. Finding the look of the experience was important to Tricart: watercolor skies, primary colors, a bare lunar-like landscape. And as you go through the experience, in barely perceptible ways, you lose one color after another. Your world degrades.

In the first scene, you're introduced to three playful floating balls -- one red, one blue, one yellow -- said to be your friends. They dance around you and perform ethereal tricks when you reach out and touch them. But as a windstorm begins to strip your treehouse-like room to pieces, you realize you can hold only two of these companions at the same time. One of them will be blown away, and nothing you can do changes that math. You can save two friends, but one will be lost.

"VR is mostly a sensory experience, visual and sound," Tricart said. To create The Key, she worked with an Atlanta nonprofit Friends of Refugees through the Oculus VR for Good program. Tricart and her partners at Friends of Refugees interviewed people to find shared experiences across refugees' journeys: leaving in a hurry, going through checkpoints, your belongings being stolen, watching your loved ones taken from you.

"We took those moments, and it was all about building these sensory metaphors," Tricart said. "How can I make you feel those emotions, but not tell you what it is?"


The Key won Tribeca's 2019 Storyscapes award.

The Key

But in a shocking transition, The Key's VR experience flips from its artistic presentation to blunt realism and explains the underlying truth to everything you just saw. Refugees aren't mentioned until the very end.

"There's so many metaphors in the story. For me, the goal was not to have a single person understand all of them," she said. The Key, she said, is more emotional storytelling than an intellectual one.

The Key's revelation was designed for the participant, but it also mimics how refugees process trauma of their journeys in a way, according to Lauren Brockett, the director of employment programs at Atlanta nonprofit Friends of Refugees.

"There actually is a real syndrome of forgetting" in the refugee community, she said. "The concept of the key --  it's like you're unlocking the memories that are, in a sense, compartmentalized as a survival mechanism."

This iteration of The Key ended with the close of Tribeca's Immersive program Saturday. But the creators of The Key want to expand it to museums and other film festivals, as well as adapt it to an experience that can be accessed by anyone with a headset connected to the Oculus store.

Watch this: Tribeca Film Fest's VR, AR ranged from creepy to cute

At the end of The Key experience at Tribeca, though, you're given a gift from the woman in the room with you. She removes a key from the wall and clips it to your festival lanyard.

It had the effect, first of all, of stoking conversation about the experience at the festival even after participants moved on. People unfamiliar with the experience would ask about that key dangling from your lanyard, and people who both had keys would recognize somebody to swap reactions.

But the keys had another effect that didn't become clear until days later.

Usually, at the end of festivals or conferences, I don't have any qualms about tossing the lanyard with my credentials in the trash. They're clunky and annoying, and I'm always glad to be rid of them. But this year, I can't bring myself to dispose of mine yet. Every time I pick up my credentials, the key on it clicks around. I look at it, I aimlessly read the engraved markings -- and I put it back down where it was, procrastinating the decision about what to do with it until next time.

It has become more than an object -- it's a reminder of the metaphorical journey I took. And that means it's another, small way The Key helped me understand a fraction of what a refugee must feel. 

VR gets arty at Tribeca Film Festival 2019

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Originally published May 5, 11:05 a.m. PT
Correction, May 7:
 An earlier version of this article misidentified a representative of Friends of Refugees. Her first name is Lauren.