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The New Virtual Reality Experience That Takes You Inside A Sexual Assault

A new virtual reality project allows participants to witness an encounter at a party that leads to a sexual assault, from both a man's and a woman's perspectives.

One of the most inventive projects at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival should come with a trigger warning. Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party is the live-action story of a sexual assault at a frat party that viewers experience through the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, from both a man's and a woman's points of view. Filmed with a three-dimensional camera, The Party will be among the New Frontier Exhibitions at the Park City-based festival, which is weighted heavily toward virtual reality this year. But The Party, the first in what is intended to be an eventual Perspective trilogy, is different from other virtual reality experiences in its focus on narrative storytelling — and its creators, Morris May and Rose Troche, mean to be provocative, both in their subject matter and in their use of new technology.

"To me this is where social consciousness and narrative film can sort of interact," Troche, who has directed and written feature films such as Go Fish and The Safety of Objects, told us in a telephone interview.

Her co-creator, who also served as a guide, curator, and tech support for our viewing of The Party at the Sundance offices in Los Angeles, had his own reasons for working on this particular project.

"Twenty-five years of blowing up buildings and doing destruction," said May, whose background is in visual effects, working on blockbuster movies such as Spider-Man 2. "So it was very important for me to be, like, let's make something that can possibly have a social impact or help people or learn about the world."

May, who is now the founder of a virtual reality production company, Specular Theory, described his initial ideas for the larger effort Perspective as a "personal passion project." He mentioned it to Shari Frilot, the co-director of New Frontier and a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, who introduced him to Troche, thinking they might complement each other. The two got along well, began working together, and soon came up with the idea of Perspective as a three-part series, with The Party as its first installment. It was self-funded on a shoestring — May said he and Troche each put in "five, six thousand dollars" — and was made specifically for New Frontier at Sundance.

"It was very important for me to be, like, let's make something that can possibly have a social impact or help people or learn about the world."

May built the camera himself; Troche wrote the script and directed the shoot. They hired actors, and filmed over the course of one day at a fraternity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The Party is two separate five-minute segments telling the same story, one from a man's perspective, the other from a woman's. In the New Frontier space in Park City, according to May, the piece will be set up with two stations: A viewer will watch one perspective, and then switch with the person watching the other side of the story. (Warning: If you are attending Sundance, plan to experience The Party, and don't want to be spoiled about details, skip these next two paragraphs.)

The plot: A guy named Brian (Caleb Thomas) arrives at a party and immediately goes to talk to a woman named Gina (Tabitha Morella), who's dancing by herself in a corner. They talk a bit, he twirls her around, she falls to the ground, they laugh and do a shot together. He has a friend who comes in and out of the picture, and so does she.

Then the scene changes to a bedroom at the frat house where Gina has passed out. Brian's friend sees this circumstance as an opportunity, and argues that they should take turns having sex with her. Brian does not need much convincing. Neither point of view shows the rape (or, presumably, rapes).

"It's as PG as I wanted it to be," said Troche. "It was really, really important to me to not have this be an experience where you kind of got half a boner."

We experienced The Party first from Brian's point of view, and then through Gina's eyes (literally). Because the combination of the new technology and the fraught topic of sexual assault makes The Party difficult to dissect, we wanted to share our discussion about it.

Kate Aurthur: I've never experienced virtual reality before, and this was quite a starting point. I found it to be physically jarring, but more than that, I thought the piece was effective. With The Party, May and Troche very clearly want to evoke powerful feelings about a political, in-the-news topic: rape on college campuses. I thought it succeeded. What were your big feelings about it?

Adam B. Vary: It certainly was the most emotionally effective virtual reality experience I’ve ever had, but that is comparing it just to two other VR “experiences” I’ve done that were created purely to promote a movie (namely Pacific Rim and Interstellar). In a way, I felt trapped, forced to live through something I never would find myself living through, at least on the guy’s end. For one, I was unnerved by Brian’s choices almost immediately, since Gina was clearly, deeply intoxicated and Brian seemed unaware — blithely, maybe? For another, not to put too fine a point on this, but I’m gay. So I never quite felt like I was identifying with any aspect of the experience as much as I was passively observing it through the participants’ eyes. If that even makes any sense?

"The lurching camera created a realistic, nauseating discomfort — a you-are-there sense of dread."

KA: There are parts of it that did feel participatory to me, in that the lurching camera created a realistic, nauseating discomfort — a you-are-there sense of dread. And though there's a canny moment when Brian's instigator friend asks the passed-out Gina, whose eyes open for a second, whether she wants to have sex with Brian, there isn't a gray area in what they do: It's rape. The friend was perhaps envisioning a future campus tribunal in which he and Brian defend themselves.

And yes, I felt trapped during both points of view. I'm gay, too, I should say, yet I did go to plenty of frat parties in my day, and this felt real enough, though it was not as crowded and chaotic as those parties usually are. One thing I noted in particular, and this is not a technical element but ends up being part of the identification, is how young the main pair of actors looked. She is so disoriented and drunk when you see her through Brian's eyes, and it made me quite upset, which circles back to how intimate the feelings can be with this technology.

ABV: The intimacy was striking, wasn’t it? Not just in that the actors’ respective faces were in three dimensions and felt literally inches away from me, but in that I could look around at the the space at my own discretion. I’m the kind of video game player who needs to explore every inch of a virtual environment, and I was no different in this experience (despite how dizzy I felt when I was done). I picked up some telling small details, like how Brian's friend never stopped watching Gina when I was in her point of view, or how much the people at the party seemed to ignore Brian’s antics when I was in his gaze versus how much I felt they were looking at Gina when I was in hers. The potential for that kind of detailed, experiential layering in storytelling is fascinating — and here, quite powerful. So long as they can figure out how to quell the dizzy factor, which I gather was what kept you from looking around?

KA: I don't want to diminish the work by saying that I was scared I was going to barf, but...yeah. I do tend toward motion sickness, though not overly (I think), and therefore, I was being careful with swinging my head around. That heaving, jerky sensation is intentional on the part of the filmmakers in this case, of course. Virtual reality is prone to that — at this nascent stage, anyway — but there are ways to steady the experience, all of which May said they deliberately threw out here in order to replicate the characters' drunken points of view.

Speaking of points of view, Adam, do you think the story would make sense if you watched Gina's experience first? People at Sundance will be doing that, but I can't wrap my head around how that would unfold. Even if you were to reverse the order in which we did it, it's more of the man's story than the woman's, especially since she's so impaired, and in the second scene, not awake.

ABV: You know, I’m not sure. Gina’s story ends with a gut-punch reveal that I feel would have had less power without seeing Brian’s story first. [Warning: If you, the reader, plan on experiencing this piece at Sundance, and don’t want this moment spoiled for you, skip this next sentence.] After Brian and his friend leave the bedroom, Gina awakens and discovers that they’ve scrawled a message on her leg thanking her for being “fun.” I screamed at that moment. It really felt like an ending.

"We are clearly not meant to walk away from The Party thinking what ultimately happened was anything other than rape."

The exploratory nature of the VR medium, however, makes me suspect The Party could still work if Gina’s story had gone first. It just would have further colored how I experienced Brian’s point of view at the party. I mean, even if Gina and Brian’s individual actions are open to interpretation — Is she holding his hand, or keeping him at a distance? Is he innocently flirting, or actively pursuing? Is the friend a predatory creep, or just really young and tragically reckless? — we are clearly not meant to walk away from The Party thinking what ultimately happened was anything other than rape. Even though (thankfully, I think) Troche and May choose to cut away from the actual assault itself, which, in this instance, I feel wouldn’t have contributed much to the piece other than trauma.

But I’m wondering, Kate, if you share my concern about what the sledgehammer-subtle GamerGate folks might make of May and Troche’s delicate work here?

KA: Yes, my most insistent and fearful thoughts after viewing The Party are about the new doors this technology opens to misogynists, especially once virtual reality is prevalent. I wouldn't want to meet or interact on social media with the people who found this piece titillating, but surely those people do exist. I also thought about how consensual sex — and pornography — will be represented as this technology becomes mainstream. It's all fascinating to me, and I can't wait to see more stories invented for this medium.

ABV: Indeed. I hope more stories like this will help resolve the difficulty we’ve had to find the vocabulary to talk about The Party: Was it an experience, an art piece, a film, or something else? Were we The Party’s audience, viewers, participants, or some new term that hasn’t been invented yet? Even the “medium” with which we watched (experienced? lived through?) The Party is a misnomer: The reality wasn’t virtual at all, but brought to life by flesh-and-blood actors in a very real setting. I wonder if this is how people who saw the first motion pictures felt, like they were witnessing something radically new and filled with vast, uncertain, and exciting possibility.

Which brings me to the most compelling question about The Party, and the end of our conversation about it (for now): Where do we go from here?

For May and Troche, the next step is Perspective; Chapter 2, which is also meant to challenge viewers' own perspectives on intense cultural topics. The duo is still developing the next chapter, which will depict an encounter between a protester and a police officer. “It's about presenting something objectively in the most subjective technical form you could,” Troche said with a laugh. “I'm really interested to see what I feel when I am the cop.”

One of the most exciting elements of the process for May and Troche is the rapidly changing nature of virtual reality. “The way I shot [The Party], I will do nothing like that ever again,” said May. “I mean, the next episode is completely different. The technology has advanced so much.” May cited increased image resolution and more flexible cameras as a major factor, both of which largely mitigate the unavoidably muddy visual aesthetic in The Party. “We always knew that as we kind of continue with the series of Perspective that each one is going to make the [previous] one look like it was a children's drawing,” said Troche.

"It went from zero to a hundred really fast. … This stuff is happening from month to month."

That technological leap is matched by an astounding amount of growth in VR-related productions in the past year. Out of 15 art installations in the New Frontier program at this year’s Sundance, 11 of them are using some kind of VR technology, including Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR — that is more than double the number of VR pieces at Sundance 2014. One piece even features Fox Seachlight’s Wild and recent Oscar nominees Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

The rapid growth, said New Frontier's co-director Frilot, can be traced to Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift last March for $2 billion. “That was just, like, the floodgates [are] open, and all these new technologists were coming to the fore,” Frilot said at the Los Angeles Sundance offices. “I did not foresee that we would have a major studio involved in this lineup … that Samsung would be involved with [us] this year. It went from zero to a hundred really fast. None of these companies were involved in May, y’know? This stuff is happening from month to month.”

Troche said the swift evolution of VR technology has also been a boon to her creatively. When she started working with May, she was told she couldn’t have the main protagonist interact with anything within the frame. When we shot [The Party], Morris had figured out a way to build a camera, to make it handheld, to fix all the issues and build software around it. It was kind of incredible,” Troche said. The Party was deliberately shot with a 220-degree perspective, but Chapter 2 will be shot so viewers can look around in a full 360 degrees. “[So] I have to think about a 360 narrative,” said Troche. “It is thinking about, What is the story all around us? And that kind of gives me goosebumps.”

The biggest hurdle for VR content creators is how anyone who isn’t attending a major film festival will be able to see these projects themselves. May said he was confident a consumer version of Oculus Rift would be available in 2015 for “$250 to $300,” but the media department at Oculus Rift has not responded to our request for comment. (The current development kit is available for $350.) As for how pieces like The Party could be distributed to the public, May said, "We don't really know yet, to be honest. There'll be an Oculus store eventually, whether that'll be curated content or not, we don't know. Those are pretty much unknowns.”

Even with all the uncertainty tied into VR storytelling, could the narrative films that currently dominate Sundance ever be supplanted by storytelling in virtual reality?

“It’s only a matter of time,” said Frilot.