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Creating the Virtual Reality Experience

Originally focused on gaming, VR breaks out as a superb storytelling platform.

May 31, 2016

From the moment you enter the lobby at Valve Corporation, it’s clear you’re at the leading edge of entertainment. Life-size artifacts and characters from some of the company’s biggest hits – Half-Life, Team Fortress, Left for Dead – adorn the walls, coffee tables and counters, while stylish 20 and 30-somethings work away excitedly at high-powered computing stations overlooking eastside traffic.

After more than a decade at the forefront of gaming software, it’s no surprise Valve is one of the industry leaders in virtual reality. It’s a big month for the company, because the HTV Vive VR headset they helped to engineer was released on April 6, to worldwide industry excitement.  It is already sold out and there’s a wait to try it out at the local Microsoft store. I’m here to get a sneak preview.

Engineer Jeremy Selan leads me to a small square room enclosed by black curtains. He outfits me with one of the $800 headsets, a pair of headphones and two controllers with thumb and trigger controls.

“Ready?” he asks, and upon my nod, the screen lights up and I’m instantly swept to another world. I’m standing on the edge of an underwater wreck at the bottom of the ocean and schools of clownfish and jellyfish are swimming all around me. If I reach out my controller I can touch them, receiving a small vibration as they brush past my hand. From the first moment it’s clear this isn’t your parents’ virtual reality.

“The concept of virtual reality has been around since the 50s and 60s,” says Selan. “But the computing speed and power necessary just weren’t possible to make it really feel like another reality. This is the first moment when all of the technologies necessary for the modern virtual reality experience are possible.”

For the next hour I’m poking fish, shooting lasers at aliens, painting in 360-degree space and throwing sticks for a robot dog to fetch in a square in Venice. Pulling off the headset, I feel a tinge of disbelief that this experience all happened in this 12’ x 12’ room. Instantly I feel the power of what I’ve just experienced. If I doubted before, I’m certain now that the virtual reality revolution is upon us. And the rules for what’s about to happen are unwritten.

“We believe this is the future of not only computing, but all forms of entertainment, medicine, social networking interaction,” says Selan. “We really believe this is going to change how we think about media.”

Across Lake Washington and just over Lake Union in a sleepy side street of Queen Anne, one of the innovators pushing VR in new directions is also celebrating a big month.  Seattle and LA-based filmmaker Sandy Smolan is releasing his highly anticipated virtual reality film, “The Click Effect,” in a few days.  A 30+-year veteran of feature films, documentaries, TV dramas, web series and PBS specials, Smolan has never shied away from a new medium of storytelling. But in 2014, when he first tried modern virtual reality at a demo in a Stanford University lab, he knew this was a major leap in cinema.

“I was standing on a wooden floor and suddenly, all of the planks disappeared except for the two I was standing on, and I was 30 feet above the ground,” says Smolan of the experience. “And the man giving the demo says ‘step off.’ “

Smolan continued, “And I crouched down, so fearful of falling. And everyone laughed. I knew in my mind that I was in the room and safe but another part of my mind completely believed I was in danger of falling. And I had an epiphany right then and there that this was going to be how we would start to tell stories.”

Around the same time, Smolan read the book “Deep” by journalist James Nestor about the connection with the ocean depths experienced by free divers – divers who spend 5 to 6 minutes at a time underwater without oxygen– researching ocean life. He came across the story of free diver scientists Fabrice Schnoller and Fred Buyle, who were studying whale and dolphin communication by swimming with them for long periods, hoping to prove that they were communicating in images, not just words. Smolan knew he had his subject. 

He partnered with Vrse, Inc., a leading virtual reality platform that works with any smartphone, and with Annapurna Pictures, and began developing the film. Spending several weeks off the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and near Reunion Island (east of Africa), they shot with a custom-designed rig that had six GoPro cameras pointing in all directions. It was a perfect marriage between the underwater environment and the untested grounds of virtual reality. 

“This is like the earliest days of cinema,” says Smolan. “To have a frame that’s everything in all directions at once is so exciting and requires a completely new filmic language. And underwater was the perfect place for testing it out.”

The five-minute film that resulted from months of shooting, editing and compositing was shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival to excited and sometimes emotional reaction. Viewers expressed a feeling of being immersed with the divers and animals and didn’t report any of the sickness or nausea sometimes associated with virtual reality films. Most of them were simply immersed in the world of the divers and the amazing animals being studied, and felt like they’d just had the type of deep encounter described in Nestor’s book.

When I tried out the film at Smolan’s Queen Anne, Seattle studios, I was curious how I would adapt to the technology and how quickly I would be able to notice that this was only a “virtual” reality. But like the best films often do, it transported me instantly. I was able to “swim” in a deep blue ocean, following divers and beautiful sea creatures down to the ocean floor, through old shipwrecks, and off into the open water. I could see their beauty and feel their presence and totally forgot about the “real” world I had just left. And when the credits rolled and I pulled off the mask, there was an intense emotional sensation, that I not only missed that world and those creatures, but that I as a human was responsible for protecting them and their habitat.  It was completely unexpected and it blew me away.

I then realized the true power of this technology that Smolan had tried to relate to me.

“When you feel connected to something like that through a shared experience versus a few images on a small rectangular screen, it makes you care about it more,” said Smolan. “Virtual reality has incredible potential for showing people how it feels to be somewhere else and experience a different reality not their own. And I think that it will make a difference in the world through empathy. My job as a filmmaker is to make those experiences that make people see the world in a different way, care about the world in a different way, and can be more connected to the world.”

To experience ‘The Click Effect’, go to:

A $15 Google Cardboard VR viewer that can work with just about any smartphone can be ordered here:

To learn more about the HTC Vive VR system, go to:


Made possible in part by

Getting Started with VR

You can experience virtual reality at home right now with a simple Google Cardboard and smartphone.

1. Order or build your own viewer.
2. Download the Google Cardboard app or any of the other compatible apps. (iTunes link)
3. Watch, play and enjoy your new virtual reality set up.


'The Click Effect' will be featured at SIFFX, a smaller four-day festival looking at ground-breaking films within the larger SIFF festival. It will be shown during VR Vanguard in the Dome on June 3rd.

June 2-5, 2016
SIFFX website

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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VR is the greatest empathy tool ever created.