Thought Bubble: Virtual Reality Should Be More than a Gimmick

All photos by Christopher Demelo.

Virtual Reality isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to get tons of support and money from the people that are dedicated to the medium. But VR still has a long way to go, especially when so many artists continue to apply the rules of older media.

I attended POP 02 and it was not a good showcase for VR. The second of three summer VR installations hosted by TIFF Digital Studio, POP 02 focused on storytelling and empathy, showing stories from different walks of life in a VR format. The experience was middling at best and disappointing at worst.

The problem is that many of the exhibits at the event had some of the poorest implementation of VR I’ve seen to date. They lacked focus, and in a lot of cases the VR didn’t seem to serve any purpose. I like VR experiences that engage me as a person. The content in the POP 02 seemed interesting, but a lot of it felt like something you’d watch on TV. What’s the point of working in VR if you’re not going to take advantage of the technology?


The best example is 6×9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement, made by The Guardian. It is meant to show how prison inmates experience being alone for months, if not years. The subject matter is important, and speaks to a real and present issue when stories about the prison-industrial complex and the abuse of power are constantly in the news. If done well, VR could help people understand what it’s like to live in those conditions.

Unfortunately, 6×9 feels lazy, conveying most if its information through text that flashes on the screen with all the effectiveness of a Power Point presentation. The added visual effects – like having you float above your bed or seeing someone out of the corner of your eye – come off as hokey rather than serious.

The same was true of many of the other exhibits. Clouds Over Sidra follows Sidra, a 12-year old girl who has spent over a year at a Syrian Refugee camp in Jordan, but the VR involved little more than dropping a 360 camera in various parts of the camp. It provided less insight than the nightly news or countless articles on the subject. I don’t know what the VR offered beyond the sheer novelty of the technology.

Highway of Tears, a CBC original VR experience, deals with the missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, but the scenes it uses are uninspired. It wasn’t immersive and actually does a disservice to the very real issue because it calls more attention to the gimmick (VR) than the subject matter being presented. Meanwhile, Patrick Osborne’s Pearl tracks the relationship between a father and daughter through the passenger seat of their car. It’s a cloying collection of Hallmark cards, with all the depth of an after school special taped on VHS.


I could go on, but the biggest problem just kept repeating itself in different forms. VR done simply for the sake of VR does a disservice to the content that you want to address and the medium that you chose to use. POP 02 exhibits like Irrational Exuberance, a spacefaring mining experience, at least gave unique points of view and a degree of interactivity that benefits VR. Nomads was also interesting because it showed a lifestyle that I had no idea existed.


When done well, VR can help viewers empathize with people in different situations. In the case of 6×9, the only redemptive quality was the audio. Looking at objects like the toilet or books on a shelf unlocked audio from real inmates about how those objects became part of their lives, and listening to an inmate speak about how vital a long book could be when used to stave of boredom helped me understand some of the psychological damage of solitary confinement.

But VR that fails to justify the use of VR feels like a waste of time, and it makes you wonder who POP 02 is made for. People who are into VR are already sold on the concept and can get most of these experiences at home. People who haven’t bought into VR won’t be convinced by POP 02. The topics are important, but the exhibits don’t provide any unique or new information. There are better VR events, and better ways to utilize the technology. Here’s hoping we see some of them at POP 03.