Men loaf on the sidewalk along a street of packed dirt under a blue sky streaked with sparse clouds. Somewhere nearby, a girl sings in Arabic.
Suddenly, an explosion fills the air with smoke, and bystanders fall to the ground as an airstrike unfolds.
The scene is straight out of Syria, but it’s being experienced hundreds of miles away, in a sparsely decorated, white-walled room on the first floor of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. There, visitors took turns pulling a hefty set of goggles over their eyes and a pair of headphones over their ears to watch the immersive documentary, “Project Syria.”
Just steps away from the outdoor Carmel Market, the documentary was on display as part of a recent, interactive storytelling festival that highlighted the power of an emerging technology, virtual reality, or VR, to evoke a sense of “being there,” whisking people over hundreds or thousands of miles and inserting them in new and foreign environments.
The virtual reality industry is in the midst of a boom cycle, with a high-water mark coming in 2014 when Facebook bought headset-maker Oculus VR for $2 billion. Israel, home to a number of indie VR studios and related tech companies — including one that plans to manufacture a 360-degree camera for under $1,000 — is vying for a piece of that pie.
“My fantasy is that Israel will be a VR powerhouse, and we have every opportunity to do it,” said virtual-reality game designer Doron Knaan speaking at a March 4 morning panel at the festival.
His optimism comes from the proliferation of indie virtual reality studios, which he sees as the future of the industry, as well as the enterprising spirit for which Israel is famous.
Steamer Salon, which organized the four-day Steamer Interactive Story Festival, is part of an effort to make Knaan’s fantasy a reality. The organization was founded by a group of students from the Tel Aviv University Steve Tisch School of Film and Television who hoped to marry their creative insight to the new medium, but lacked the technical know-how.
“It was really hard to get information and knowledge, which is completely unjustified,” said Adi Lavy, one of the group’s founders, lamenting a “disconnect between the film industry and Israeli VR technology.”
Besides connecting would-be VR filmmakers with technology companies, the Steamer Salon is the nucleus of a program, opening at Tel Aviv University in October, that will allow students to earn a masters of fine arts in digital media, focusing on new platforms for interactive storytelling.
At the festival, the atmosphere was bullish, brimming with confidence that a medium currently characterized by blurry graphics and nausea-inducing motion sequences can emerge as a bona fide artistic medium.
“There’s a lot of junk out there, and they’re able to get away with it because of the ‘wow’ factor,” Nonny de la Peña, a journalist and senior research fellow at USC who directed “Project Syria,” said during an afternoon panel. “That’s not going to last.”
What will last, she said, is the power of the medium to give audiences an empathetic understanding of people and situations that otherwise might elude them. For example, in 2015 she debuted a virtual reality experience, “Kiya,” that placed viewers inside a domestic violence situation to highlight a problem that claims the lives of three women each day on average, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“It’s an astonishing number, but people hear it and then it’s gone,” de la Peña said at the panel.
Sitting across from de la Peña at the panel was Gabo Arora, a United Nations senior adviser who makes virtual reality films for the U.N. He discussed the impact a short VR documentary he co-directed about the Syrian crisis had on its audience.
“Clouds Over Sidra” follows a 12-year-old girl who fled her home in Syria because of the conflict. Arora recounted how an Iraqi journalist whom he met at a conference asked to see the film. After removing the virtual reality goggles, “he broke down very seriously and actually had to be consoled,” Arora said, suggesting it resonated with the journalist because of similar violence he had experienced in Iraq.
Arora was in Israel partly to expose people on the streets of Tel Aviv to his newest documentary project and videotape their reactions. “My Mother’s Wing” is an eight-minute VR documentary focusing on a family in Gaza that lost two sons during the 2014 conflict between Hamas and Israel. He said that while some people react defensively (“What about our struggles?”), others were moved.
Between panels, participants circulated through a number of virtual reality exhibits. Upstairs, groups of five took turns sitting around a dinner table set with silverware, empty dishes and artificial flowers, and donning VR goggles to watch “The Doghouse,” a murder mystery by Danish artist Johan Knattrup Jensen. Each participant sees the story unfold from the perspective of a different character.
Many attendees were experiencing virtual reality for the first time.
Natalie Edwards, a marketing manager who moved to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles two years ago and attended the festival, said “Project Syria” helped her visualize a crisis she had only read about in news reports. But she was unable to sit through “The Doghouse” because of the way it was filmed: The characters shift their perspective while also allowing users to independently look around the scene, creating a discomfiting effect.
“It’s the dissonance that makes you dizzy,” Edwards said of the video.
While allowing that the technology is a work in progress, panelists were confident the difficulties could be overcome. Moderating the Friday morning panel, Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, a municipal organization that aims to incentivize filming in Israel’s capital, conceded the technology was “not quite exact and completed.” But he nonetheless predicted a coming renaissance for the country’s VR and interactive animation and gaming industry.
“Read my lips,” he said. “We think that in five years from now, 2,000 people will work in that industry in Jerusalem.”