It may be wrong to prosecute the young, but that's what Hot Docs will do on Tuesday, when it brings together two high-tech authorities to stage a mock trial of virtual reality, the heavily hyped technology that is still in its creative infancy. Even as Hot Docs shows off more than a dozen virtual-reality or 360-degree video experiences – including The Globe's Surviving Solitary project – the festival will allow VR itself to stand accused of falsely presenting itself as the future of the documentary form. In the VR on Trial conference event, Ana Serrano, chief digital officer of the Canadian Film Centre, will play prosecutor against defence counsel Jessica Brillhart, the principal filmmaker for VR at Google. We spoke with each of them to get a preview of their arguments.
Ms. Serrano, why do you hate VR?
Serrano: Oh my gosh, I don't!
So why are you prosecuting it, counsellor?
Serrano: I'm hating on it being "the future of everything." I think our media have become more immersive over time – from when we were in caves, sharing stories orally, all the way up to now, where we feel physically transported into some kind of virtualized environment. I think putting all our emphasis on essentially dumb pieces of technology that make up immersive media is not a good way for us to be thinking about how to construct the kinds of storytelling experiences we want to have in the future.
I'd like you to prove it's been overhyped.
Serrano: I think by framing arguments like, "The future of the documentary is VR" –
Have you really heard that?
Serrano: I'll give you an example. [Filmmaker] Chris Milk, in his, I don't know, one-million-viewership TED Talk, he calls VR "an empathy engine." It's ridiculous!
What's wrong with calling it an "empathy engine?"
Serrano: What makes VR a dumb set of tools is that it essentially privileges physical location as a way for us to contextualize and create meaning.
When we think of being in a place – of course we're in a physical location, but we typically have a much more layered context to what that location means. So, if we're in our [childhood] home, it looks like our old home, but we also know it as the place where we might have played ball, or the place where my mother would sing to me.
Over the past few months, we've seen a number of VR experiences that have sought to transport viewers into the lives of various dispossessed peoples. Don't you think VR can do what the best docs do: make us intimately feel others' experiences and lives?
Serrano: I think VR is a short-term novelty. People may feel, "Oh! Now I know what it feels like to be a Syrian refugee!" But if you just think about it for, like, a couple of seconds – no, you don't know what it's like to be a Syrian refugee. There's a lot more about it than just seeing where they live.
Thank you, counsellor. Ms. Brillhart, why do you love VR?
Brillhart: It's forcing me to rewire myself creatively, which is invigorating. It's exciting and frustrating and crazy all at the same time.
Brillhart: Film had 100 years to figure out its language, right? You go to school, you learn about the language, there are books about it, people tell you what to do – you can work within those confines, and it's fine. But with VR, that stuff doesn't necessarily all apply.
So there's a lot of trial – no pun intended, counsellor – and error?
Brillhart: Sometimes it's – "I'm just going to go in these different directions and hope something cool happens. I don't know if it will, it may be a disaster but it may be something really special," and that's where we are right now.
It doesn't sound as if you actually believe VR is ready to take us into the future, counsellor.
Brillhart: There are things that VR is good at, that film can't do. Film is a frame that we compose, and it's a remarkable medium because you're able to take this compressed atom of story and character and space and time and then transfer it to an objective viewer. But VR is about having someone actually present in that space. So, if you think of it as a compressed atom, a frame of this stuff that we've crafted, and then you just see that atom explode – think the Big Bang – then it's like, the story and everything that was in that frame is everywhere. And the potential is everywhere.
Forget the atoms. You've just blown my mind, counsellor.
Brillhart: There are things VR won't be able to do as well. If there is a very specific thing that you need someone to absolutely see, that's a film thing. There are plenty of documentaries that I've seen where it's so important to just be able to listen to someone talk about their experience and have someone focus on that. It's not a "film versus VR" thing. It's a "film and VR" thing.
This pretrial transcript has been condensed and edited, and some of the judge's lines have been rewritten to make him sound smarter than he actually was.
Editor's note: Ana Serrano is the chief digital officer of the Canadian Film Centre. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.