The cutting edge of tech in storytelling is challenging for viewers as much as for makers; they don’t call it “bleeding edge” for nothing. At the Tribeca Film Festival 2019, as usual, viewing immersive work involved long waits, tech glitches, and some sympathy for the lovely young people in charge of regretfully telling you no. But it also involved some surprising pleasures.

At Tribeca Film Festival 2019, Jessica Brillhart showcased an installation of AR art set to the sound of Yoyo Ma playing Bach.pleasures.

Into the Light, the Smoke, the Gas.

Here’s my top favorite: Jessica Brillhart and Igal Nassima’s exploration of spatial audio (using Brillhart’s new app Traverse) mixed with AR, Into the Light. It offers a delectably combined set of sensations. You listen via earphones to Yoyo Ma playing Bach—he’s just a blob of light, but you can move closer to him, or behind him, or further away as you like—as you walk to various stations where elegant abstract pieces of 3-D artwork intertwine with real-world reality on your iPhone. Into the Light is a stunning example of this approach, which has endless and accessible possibilities. It’s experience, not story, and it’s glorious.

In Lance Weiler’s low-tech Where There’s Smoke, groups of four enter a room designed to replicate a study in his family home, which burned one morning. The group explores memory and its limits together, via found objects. It’s simple and effective as a way to think about family, memory and loss. The piece showcased Weiler’s ability to make experience meaningful and provocative. It was immersive without ever having to put on a device.

Brandon Oldenburg’s War Remains takes podcast historian Dan Carlin’s recounting of the horrors of trench warfare and makes it real, in an elaborate installation with theme-park-ready electronic effects. If you want to experience trench warfare, including walking through and over bodies and getting gassed, this one is for you. I did not make it through; “you’re not the first,” said the attendant kindly. Even so, the experience is still shaking me up. This might be war porn or a horrifying reminder of the long legacy of that terrible war, or both.

Experiments.

I saw a lot of 360 video that made me wonder whether an ordinary documentary might have been more effective. But not

The Washington Post’s 12 Seconds of Gunfire works both on the web and in 360.

always. You can experience the Washington Post’s 12 Seconds of Gunfire, by Suzette Moyer and Seth Blanchard, either way, and I liked both. It’s a graceful and troubling animation of a child’s trauma after her best friend is murdered on a school playground. And it shames our national leaders for lack of a gun control policy.

Often the pieces demonstrated steps forward in tech, whatever the nature of the finished product.  Cave, by Ken Perlin, Kris Layng, and Sebastian Herscher, tried out tech that lets up to 50 viewers share a VR experience, and see each other as avatars within it. We all sat in a virtual cave, set in deepest prehistory, listening to a young shaman who seemed vaguely Disneyesque in her struggle to find her voice. The group viewing solves some exhibition problems for VR, but otherwise there wasn’t much point in looking at another avatar around the campfire. I could immediately see possibilities, though, in the tech underlying Kevin Cornish’s 2d Civil War . It ambitiously used audio tech to let viewers’ verbal cues trigger different video segments. The piece is an all-too-easy-to-imagine projection of a future in which Americans are once again at war with each other. I was yelled at by several people as, in my role as a journalist in the insurgent zone, I perversely chose the “wrong” cues. I look forward to next iterations of this kind of audio “choose your adventure” format.

Doing Good and VR.

The tech industry loves to subsidize audio-visual experiments, especially if they can also scoop up humanitarian points. But the experience can raise eyebrows as much as it can leave you with a warm fuzzy.

One piece in Tribeca X crystallized this problem for me. Tribeca X is a new strand of programming, which showcases sponsored documentaries—or, if you like, “the intersection of storytelling, brands and advertising.” Speakers at the event reminded us that sponsorship is everywhere. For instance, most of the work in the immersive (AR, VR, 360) section of Tribeca had sponsorship, at a minimum from tech companies. But immersive work, as they also noted, is still bedeviled with problems of access and monetization.

The piece that rang too many bells for me was  the VR work “The 100%–Maggie’s Story,” funded by three tech companies. It is a visually-stunning, technologically interesting piece featuring ballerina Maggie Kudirka. Diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer at age 23, Kudirka continues defiantly and gravity-defyingly to dance–to pay her medical bills. The short and memorable piece is designed in the end to fundraise for cancer treatments. It left me thinking: In what other developed nation do stage-4 cancer patients have to self-fund to survive? Is making high-end VR with high-end headsets, to beg for charity, a good way to address this part of the health-care crisis? Is it OK to applaud the uplift, never-give-up message and skip over the barbarism of the context?

Facebook’s Oculus, whose affordable headset is often seen as a gateway drug to consumer VR use, has a whole program, VR for Good. It provides smallish grants to filmmakers who team up with nonprofits, which contribute resources as well for a 360 work that promotes their cause. In general, the VR for Good films at Tribeca Film Fest were disappointing. They had poor visual resolution, no particular need to be in a 360 format, and a focus on how Northern charities are helping the dusky deserving poor elsewhere.

One exception, though, was Celine Tricart’s The Key, which thrust viewers into an alternate universe where we “grasped” a key and unlocked the secret of the little alien’s past, which she does not know. She is, it turns out, one of the tens of millions of refugees in the world today. I did have my doubts about whether you want to associate refugees with aliens, much less space aliens. And I don’t think that refugees forget where they came from. But the key was lovely.

The Key won a grand jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tricart donated the $10,000 to the nonprofit partner, Friends of Refugees.