The Portland Art Museum rents out virtual reality experiences

Still image from ‘I Saw the Future’, one of 10 immersive virtual reality pieces featured in PAM CUT’s VR to Go

Courtesy of the Center for an Untold Tomorrow at the Portland Art Museum

Have you ever tried virtual reality? If not, imagine this: you put a big headset over your eyes, grab controllers in your hands, and soon your living room disappears. You look around and find yourself in a geodesic dome on a mountainside. A fire is burning in the fireplace. Visible from outside: the aurora borealis and shooting stars overhead in the night sky. From this place many roads lie before you. Choose one and you accompany a refugee leaving Afghanistan on his long journey by bus, boat and train; passing landscapes, the sun rising and setting. Pick another one and you’re in space! Jessica Chastain takes you inside a black hole and Patti Smith narrates the Big Bang before your eyes. On yet another trail you have pangolins talking to you as they search for food and shade in the desert heat. Whichever you choose – and you can choose them all! – you are completely immersed, with sights and sounds in every direction. The reality of your living room and your life is distant for a while.

The Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow (PAM CUT for short) is now renting out virtual reality headsets pre-installed with 10 handpicked immersive VR works from around the world that you can try out for a few days at home. The VR to Go program is a partnership with the Pfi Center in Montreal, and PAM CUT is the program’s only location in the United States. With it, the center hopes to increase access to this growing and evolving art form and ultimately open doors for new creative work in virtual reality and 3D filmmaking here in the North West.

John Richardson is the Associate Director of Creative Programs at the Center for an Untold Tomorrow. He recently joined OPB’s Jenn Chávez, another recent VR first-timer, to talk about VR To Go and some of the summer programs that have been extended through October 31st.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stop animated cityscape scene in black, white and gray.  It is a town square surrounded by dark towering buildings against a cloudy sky, with signs in Japanese.  One billboard has a picture of a man wearing a gas mask.

Still image from ‘The Sick Rose’, one of 10 immersive VR pieces featured in PAM CUT’s VR to Go

Courtesy of the Center for an Untold Tomorrow at the Portland Art Museum

Jen Chavez: I am a movie buff and have been watching movies all my life. But this recent experience was my first VR experience, and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Can you describe what it feels like for people who have never done it before?

John Richardson: Absolutely. I’d say I’m also somewhat of a novice when it comes to enjoying the VR experience as a viewer. I think one of the things that really sets the VR viewing experience apart from the more traditional sense is that you’re totally in it, from the moment you start to the moment you take off the headset. You don’t get to fold laundry or check your phone or do anything else you might be doing while watching a movie at home. You don’t even think about these things. You are completely immersed in whatever experience is in front of you at that moment.

Chavez: This headset comes with 10 international VR parts. They are prepared by PAM CUT and are really versatile. We’re talking about things from stop motion to photorealism; from the Kalahari Desert, to Afghanistan, to space. What is the theme that connects all these projects?

Richardson: When these pieces were curated by a number of our staff here at PAM CUT, the idea was that they would capture the past, present and future… When we have a piece like ‘I Saw the Future’ that takes actual audio from Arthur C .. Clark talks about where he saw the future of experiencing space and time and essentially predicting exactly what is happening and what you are seeing at that moment. It’s animated with a lot of futuristic imagery, but it’s audio from the 1960s. We also have “Kinoscope” which talks about the history of cinema as well as “The Dawn of Art”, that’s another one where you kind of look back in time. But then when you watch something like Blind Vaisha, you really get that experience of the past and the future. Because this one – it’s a Canadian piece – it’s about a character who sees the future with his right eye and sees the past with his left eye. So it’s really about taking that theme and exploring it in the piece itself.

Linocut style animation, a small young girl stands in a room looking up at three tall dark figures peering over her.

Still image from ‘Blind Vaysha’, one of 10 immersive VR pieces featured in PAM CUT’s VR to Go

Courtesy of Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow

Chavez: Do you have a favorite and what do you like about it?

Richardson: My personal favorite is “Kinoscope” but that’s because I’m a movie nerd and I think that just speaks to me personally. But I’d say the fan favorite of people who come to leave their headphones is usually ‘Spheres’, which is a three piece. This one has narration from Jessica Chastain, Millie Bobby Brown, and Patti Smith, and Patti Smith’s is usually the one people talk about the most.

Chavez: Yeah, one of those, you’re inside a black hole and then you become a black hole and then you get swallowed by another black hole! It’s wild. So, I’m glad you brought this up.

Richardson: I love talking about this stuff, it’s so wild. It’s amazing what you can do in VR that you can’t do with traditional cinematic storytelling. Because yes, you can show that on the screen, but if you look left or right, you’ll see walls or another person. While here you are just in it, you are a part of it.

An animated image of a black hole in space, with a circle of pink, white and purple lines around it, with a fiery hot pink line shooting through the frame.

Still image from ‘Spheres: Songs of Spacetime’, one of 10 immersive VR pieces featured in PAM CUT’s VR to Go

Courtesy of the Center for an Untold Tomorrow at the Portland Art Museum

Chavez: This is a rental experience. This is a three-day rental of these sets and these VR parts. Do you think of it as an entry point to this kind of art, and also to this technology, for people who don’t normally have access to it?

Richardson: Absolutely. I would say that the majority of people who have already rented a VR headset, this is the first time they put on a headset in the first place. And it’s really exciting because there’s something about our programming or marketing that called out to someone and they thought, “Wow, this is a way that I can actually see what’s going on and find out what people are talking about.” When you come in and take out a headset, there’s a member of our staff that’s here to walk you through the process, and especially if you’re a first-time VR user, you need that guidance when you’re putting on a headset. For someone to say, “so what you see in front of you is this, the reason you have to do this with your controllers is so it knows where the floor is.” You know, it’s really helpful to have that hand for someone new to equipment like this.

Chavez: A few months ago, your organization, which was called the Northwest Film Center, changed its name to the Center for an Untold Tomorrow. How does virtual reality fit into your extended mission and this idea of ​​an “untold tomorrow”?

Richardson: Well, I would say virtual reality is something that even when we were called Northwest Film Center was part of what we did. The VR to Go program was launched during this time as the Northwest Film Center. But not having the word ‘film’ as part of our name gives us this opportunity to explore newer technologies. Maybe apart from VR – things that maybe we haven’t even considered yet, or maybe things that haven’t even been invented yet. VR is one of those things that has been on our periphery for decades. And you know, we remember movies like The Lawnmower Man where this VR world is transported, or there are TV shows from maybe the 90s where it’s all about virtual reality, but it’s seen in a very blocky, geometric way. And now we’re at a point where you can watch – like you said, you can turn into a black hole – and it’s a very different experience. We want to make sure we’re open to all forms of cinematic storytelling and really celebrate those willing to push themselves and explore these new forms of creative expression.

A sunny day in the desert, with a pangolin in the center of the screen in the sand and some spare bushes in the background.

Still image from ‘A Predicament of Pangolins’, one of 10 immersive VR pieces featured in PAM CUT’s VR to Go

Courtesy of the Center for an Untold Tomorrow at the Portland Art Museum

Chavez: Does your organization have future plans to expand your VR offerings?

Richardson: Well, we’re definitely looking at what the future VR To Go will look like. And if you follow, you’ll see a lot of new things that will include VR as part of the system. Were [also] there will officially be a training workshop on how to make VR and 360 movies, so it will appear on our website soon. It’s really going to be a part of who we are and all of our offerings for a while.

Chavez: Yeah, so it looks like you’re not exposing people to this art, but you’re also potentially working with emerging VR or immersive artists. From that perspective, what do you hope to see in the future of cinematic VR storytelling?

Richardson: That’s a great question and I think that’s the “unspoken” of it, is that… man, who knows? Personally, I’m fascinated by what we can do even with audio storytelling and podcasting, and I think there’s an opportunity in the VR world to present podcasting in a whole new way as well. So whether it’s documentary storytelling or whether it’s narrative, there’s going to be a lot of ways that VR will help you tell your story in a way that traditional audio or 2D filmmaking, [is] it just wouldn’t make the most sense. I think there’s going to be a lot of creative ways that our storytellers are going to be able to really engage audiences using these technologies.

Chavez: Any final words for people in our audience who might be considering trying something similar?

Richardson: Well, I will say that out of these 10 tracks we have as part of VR To Go, there is something for everyone. I know there are people who have just watched the same movie over and over again. And there are some people who have tried all of them. That’s the great thing about having it for a few days, you can take your time with it, and you can do it however it makes sense for you. It’s just a lot of fun and we’re happy to be a part of it.

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