Review: A Virtual Reality Movie House Experience

Wearing a headset for two hours is a bit much, but attending a VR screening is a lot like going to the movies IRL.

It has been over six weeks since San Francisco began quarantine, and most of the city’s residents have either been working essential jobs, running errands, or staying at home. So it felt a bit strange to be settling into a small lounge with a handful of strangers to do a brief meet-and-greet with directors Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli before a screening of their new documentary, Ask No Questions

It was the typical pre-screening experience. I looked around awkwardly, tried to figure out who everyone was and went through some notes of potential questions for Loftus (who also served as co-writer on the film). What wasn’t so typical — beyond not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing — was that the entire event unfolded in my living room.

The screening, conceived as a benefit for the Roxie Theater, with support from SF DocFest, came directly to me — through the technological magic of virtual reality. It was presented by the Canada-based Lofty Sky Entertainment — the production company behind Ask No Questions — and through an initiative called VR Movie House, which harnessed Bigscreen VR software to teleport us into this digital cinema.  

The group of individuals present would be the theater’s audience for this showing. Instead of being together in a small screening room physically, everyone was sitting in their respective locations around North America. Rather than it being the typical pre-screening questions, individuals were getting used to the new software and experience of sitting around the virtual room. Loftus, himself, was helpfully making sure that everyone understood how their interface worked and that he could be heard and they could be heard as well.

The view through my Oculus Quest was of a circular room with a large screen dominating one wall and a fireplace off to one side. I felt as if I were on the set of a Pixar movie. While my virtual environs weren’t photo-realistic, they were close enough to make me feel as if I were actually within a physical space. The people in attendance were rendered as less realistic floating torsos, with a head, and two hands. During the Bigscreen VR account creation process, each individual is prompted to customize their avatar with a range of hairstyles, skin color, gender, and other accents, so there was a range of individual appearances present in the room.

While it might not seem important to those unfamiliar with virtual reality, one can pick up quite a bit from body language, such as head tilts and hand motions. Generally speaking, most VR users don’t have access to full-body trackers at this point, so the avatars in the virtual room did not emote much at all.

However, while waiting for the event to begin, I realized that I was able to wave my virtual hands and select from a collection of props to hold — including a drink, a box of popcorn, a tomato, and a drawing kit. The latter offers up a glass full of sharpies and markers (and an eraser) so you can draw in 3-D space in front of your avatar. The other items you can hold in your hand, throw, and drop. It isn’t much, but it does help to create some atmosphere. Since this was a polite crowd, everyone left the tomatoes and other throwables put away.

So that the audience could set their audio levels correctly, the film’s trailer was shown. It was nice to see that there wasn’t any noticeable lag in the visuals — neither while looking around the room at the avatars, or in the trailer’s rendering.

I performed a quick check by doing a few quick head turns; there wasn’t any graphical tearing or the types of artifacting that can lead to nausea in many VR applications. The audio quality was sharp and clear, both from the various avatars in the room as well as from the film. 

It was the fourth screening round of the day, and Bigscreen’s room capacity is currently limited to 12 individuals at a time. The earlier screenings had all been full, and ours was only a few avatars short of a full complement. After making sure everyone who had purchased tickets had been able to successfully make it in, the room vanished and was replaced with a traditional theater setting. 

Each participant was able to move around the theater to pick a seat that suited them (people gravitated toward where they would sit in a real-world auditorium). Everyone was reminded to mute their headsets (to prevent a wayward background noise from coming through and distracting the rest of the audience), and the movie started.

Within a few minutes, I settled into the feeling that I was genuinely sitting in a theater with other people around me. Looking around, Some attendees were sitting still, while others fidgeted or turned away from the screen. While these elements contributed to the feeling of actually being at the cinema, and while the theater space was presented in high definition, the resolution of the “screen” was less ideal. On the Bigscreen VR platform, the films’ presentation qualities are at the mercy of the abilities of the computer playing the video — as well as the Internet’s performance between that computer and Bigscreen’s servers. It was entirely watchable, and as good of an image as many YouTube videos, but it was far from a crisp HD stream. Then again, after a short time, I got used to the image artifacting and was able to simply enjoy the film. 

Ask No Questions revisits the events surrounding a grisly incident, which occurred on January 23, 2001, in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government’s official stance was that seven adherents of Falun Gong were part of an effort to self-immolate in protest of their treatment by the government. Included in the group of seven were two pairs of mothers and their young daughters. The impact of the inclusion of children caused the Chinese public as well as international observers to change their perception of the Falun Gong movement from a repressed religious order to an internal group of malcontents who were willing to kill innocent children to make a political point.

The film explores actual footage of the event, both from CNN journalists who had been on the scene as well as from official state media, and includes interviews from a number of individuals who had been involved or present when it occurred. Interviewees include Loftus himself, who had become a follower of Falun Gong; when he learned of the incident and the way it was being presented by the Chinese media, he felt something was not adding up. 

Ruichang Chen, a former state television producer and also a follower of Falun Gong is interviewed extensively throughout the film. In the wake of the incident, Chen refused to cease practicing Falun Gong and was tortured and sent to reeducation camps. Now living in the United States, Chen speaks about his doubts regarding the Chinese media’s presentation of the incident. Loftus probes the story and makes a strong case that the incident was either partially or entirely staged. The film’s main narrative arc will be interesting to American viewers, especially given that the incident received relatively little coverage in the United States.

The film is particularly relevant now, as Americans wonder whether to trust official reports on the coronavirus pandemic — whether they come from the White House or the Chinese government. Ask No Questions serves as a cautionary tale about how hard it can be to come to the truth, especially when powerful central governments have an interest in the way the public perceives a given event.

As the film ended and the credits finished scrolling, the theater vanished and the attendees were once again transported — this time to a rooftop lounge overlooking a street and a large billboard on the adjacent building. Everyone’s avatars remained silent, not because they were muted, but rather because they were still taking in and considering the film they had just watched. 

Though tired after their marathon day of four screenings and four Q&A rounds, both Lothfus and Pedicelli took the time to answer questions from those present about their experiences in collecting the interviews and compiling the film. Lothfus commented that as they had gone through all of their footage and began to explore the possible throughlines that there weren’t any simple answers to be had, and that the full truth may never be known. 

However, he insisted it was important that the question not be left to fall by the wayside. 

Upon exiting the Bigscreen VR’s software and returning to the real world, I reflected on my experience in the virtual space where I had just spent more than two hours.

It wasn’t perfect. My sinuses were sore from the pressure of the mask (VR headsets are worn snug to keep the real-world’s ambient light out, and so the screens in front of the viewer’s eyes don’t shift around, which would lead to vertigo) having the headset on for so long, and with a current maximum audience size of 12, it hardly felt like being in a packed theater. However, I didn’t get stepped on by fellow attendees trying to get by to their seats, or sit in any questionable, sticky substance.

Bigscreen VR will never replace the experience of sitting in a full theater on opening night, but it is certainly a viable option — especially in a time of mandated social distancing.

Bigscreen VR is free to download and available for Oculus Quest, Rift S and GO; Valve Index; SteamVR; VIVE; and Windows Mixed Reality. 

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