At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, audiences can walk alongside the rangers protecting elephants in Africa, see what it's like to be a tree, ride in an automated taxi transporting passengers, or follow a Holocaust survivor's steps as he visits the concentration camp he was held in for the last time.
Experiences like these are open to the public in New York City as part of the festival's immersive programming. Much the technology is a preview of how virtual reality can support cinema through things like commercials and storytelling.
"I think Hollywood is starting to take notice that VR is not just a marketing tool for their properties," says Loren Hammonds, a programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival. "Film studios recognize that there's a new medium in town and its very different from cinema."
Through Tribeca Immersive's Storyscapes and Virtual Arcade -- two programs that highlight the intersection of film and technology -- traditional filmmakers used new methods like 360-degree cameras and virtual reality devices to bring audiences deep into new worlds. One of the most prominent names at this year's event was Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who worked with director Imraan Ismail to create The Protectors: A Walk in the Ranger's Shoes, a look at the rangers guarding elephants from ivory poachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The major differences in this year's immersive programming content is the slight increase in narrative works. That field continues to be dominated by non-fiction and documentaries partially because "the narrative language is just still being developed," Hammonds says. "The only way it will move forward is if a lot more people are willing to take that risk and experiment with it."
Filmmaker Steven Schardt debuted Auto at Tribeca's Virtual Arcade, where viewers got to sit alongside Musay, an Ethiopian immigrant who can't find work as a traditional driver and must act as the safety driver for an automated vehicle. Just as Schardt's film explores what happens when new technology is adopted in the ride-hailing industry, audiences get to see what happens when creators get their hands on new tools. "I think VR does a good job of putting you in a different perspective," says Schardt, whose experience puts in viewers in an actual seat as they take an uncomfortable Uber-like journey.
The intersection of immersive storytelling and Hollywood stretches beyond the Tribeca Film Festival as the two mediums find new ways to engage audiences. This marriage, Hammonds says, is creating original content and new experiences for users. For example, outside of the Tribeca Film Festival, Fox's virtual reality arm Innovation Lab is teaming up with Ridley Scott to create an Alien: Covenant experience ahead of the new movie.
This is the fifth year the Tribeca Film Festival has featured Storyscapes and the second year for the Virtual Arcade. The programming will be available to audiences from April 21 to April 29.