Visibility Initiative: Virtual Reality 2019

Virtual Reality (VR) camera technology and viewing experiences present new horizons in documentary storytelling. At the Vermont Folklife Center we are exploring the application of these new technologies in the field of folklore, ethnographic research, and cross-cultural storytelling.  

We often describe ethnography as the process of working to understand an experience from the perspective of the people or cultural group to whom that experiences belongs. In other words: attempting to see the world from the perspective of another.

The experiential implications of Virtual Reality (VR)—transporting someone “virtually” to a place in time—presents ethnographers with an immersive documentation and communication medium unlike any available to us before. At the same time, VR also caries many unexplored ethical and professional questions. The Vermont Folklife Center wants to be at the forefront of testing this new terrain. 

Our VR activities are a part of a larger strategic initiative to increase statewide engagement with the Vermont Folklife Center through innovative approaches to presenting our work to the public. VR is one among several projects serving a central role in this effort, which also includes the use of storytelling media such as comics, short and longer format documentary films, traveling exhibits, our podcast Vermont Untapped, and more.

The Launch: VR Films + VR Experience

The Folklife Center is currently producing four VR films stemming from our ongoing fieldwork on local agriculture, ice fishing and New American Nepali cultural traditions. In 2018-2018 we plan to complete these films and begin to disseminate them as widely as possible both online and in person through a network of statewide partners and events. 

VR represents an exciting opportunity - for the Vermont Folklife Center and for everyone interested in the cultural heritage of our state.

VR Films: Nepali Sakela Festival, Ice Fishing, Farmers

We have been researching and testing VR camera technologies for over a year. Below are a collection of test films and raw clips from the VR films we plan to produce in 2018. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: To watch the clips below you simply open them in your web browser, hit play, and then click and drag on the video screen to change the viewing perspective and experience to the 360 degree view. When the film is watched inside a VR headset the accelerometer in the headset tracks the viewers motion seamlessly, so that as the viewer turns his/her head, they have the experience of looking around the scene.

Nepali Sakela Festival

Raw footage from the 2018 Ubhauli Sakela Festival hosted at Battery Park in Burlington, Vermont by the local chapter of the Bhutanese Kirat Rai Organization of America. The festival - once believed impossible to host in Vermont due the difficulty of obtaining special musical instruments and other culturally significant items - drew communities across the U.S., including Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A short clip filmed from the center of the dance circle during the festival.

Ice Fishing

Filmed this past winter at "The Meadows" in Brattleboro - the following is a raw clip from a day shadowing avid local ice fisherman, Chad Ives.

Growing Food, Growing Farmers

Raw footage from test footage at one of the two farms that will be featured in our "Growing Food, Growing Farmers" VR films. The clips below were filmed at Dorset Peak Jersey's with the help of Caleb Smith and his daughter. 

Bottle feeding once of the calves.

Testing VR camera attachment and stability on moving machinery- Caleb spends 1+ hrs a day using this forklift.

The VR Experience: Inspiration and Design

While VR is an emerging technology, we have researched and tested how other institutions are presenting VR experiences to help inform how we will present VR at our center in Middlebury. One model institution we visited is the Phi Center in Montreal, CA - which presents a library of VR film in their, "Virtual Reality Garden." The introduction to the short film below shows visitors using their "Garden"--and while their space is more extensive than we are planning, the short film effectively conveys the experience of on-site viewing.

A short introduction to the VR experience, made by the Phi Center in Montreal, CA.

Our VR Experience will be modeled after the Phi Center--however, we will do so at a smaller scale (2+ headsets) and with one other important experiential difference: swiveling seats rather than fixed benches! While this was something we noted immediately while visiting the Phi Center- the experience was confirmed while attending the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade in NYC- where VR films were presented in swiveling chairs, see photo below: 

Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade, NYC

Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade, NYC