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Virtual reality is spreading so fast, we’re at the point where consummate actor Robert DeNiro is regaling Jimmy Fallon with stories about his experience in VR on The Tonight Show. If anyone needed evidence suggesting that virtual reality is more than just a flash in the pan, this should undoubtedly serve as Exhibit A. Exhibit B would be the sheer amount of films and documentaries that have incorporated virtual reality technology into the filmmaking process at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The film festival, now in its 15th year, has a tradition of hosting and highlighting films centered around compelling stories that realistically depict technology and science. One of the festival’s main sponsors is The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a non-profit fundraising organization that supports original research and broad-based education related to science, technology and economic performance. Several documentaries are garnering buzz and rave reviews not only for the science they focus on, but for the virtual reality they employ in the viewing experience.

One documentary, The Ark, documents the near extinction of northern white rhinos in the world (only three remain). Appearing as an installation in the Storyscapes section of the festival, The Ark screens inside a VR headset that’s positioned inside a replica of a rhinoceros transport crate to give viewers the feeling of captivity that many rhinos experience, including those in the film. The use of VR is to recreate the experience these rhinos undergo in order to realistically explore and depict their impending extinction. Utilizing immersive 360-degree shots, the short documentary travels to Kenya as one doctor vigilantly keeps watch over the last three white rhinos. Other scenes include a geneticist trying to use frozen stem cells to resurrect white rhinos through in vitro fertilization and one in San Diego, site of where the sole white rhino outside of Africa died last November due to a bacterial infection.


The Tribeca Film Festival also hosts a Virtual Arcade section, devoted to virtual reality films and experiences. Films such as The Crystal Reef and The Click Effect experimented with VR technology and are showcased in the section, taking viewers on distinct trips under the sea through virtual reality. The Crystal Reef immerses viewers into a bleached coral reef that’s threatening other vibrant reefs, while The Click Effect follows marine biologists studying sperm whales and dolphins in order to sonically map their ecosystems. Filmmakers behind these and other films employing VR believe the technology is so immediate and immersive that it galvanizes people into effective calls for action.

As for a VR standout, it seems Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart has captivated most festivalgoers. Combining data from NASA’s New Horizon mission and an experience that places viewers on the surface of Pluto, the documentary is both educational and awe-inspiring, transporting people to the farthest depths of our galaxy. Photos taken during New Horizon’s flyby mission were used to construct a detailed 3D map of the dwarf planet’s surface so viewers actually feel as if they’re wandering around on Pluto, complete with craters and sheets of ice. Innovative filmmaking like this is what the Tribeca Film Festival is all about, and if the rave reviews coming out of the festival are any indication, expect to see virtual reality becoming a bigger part of the movie viewing experience in years to come.

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