FIVARS Pushes the Limits of Virtual Reality

Photos by Chris Demelo. 

The Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories (FIVARS) is an annual VR showcase that highlights digital innovators from around the world. After debuting on Toronto island in 2015, FIVARS returned to Toronto over the weekend with groundbreaking works from an ever growing number of VR developers.

The event takes its mission from Founder Keram Malicki-Sanchez, who has a unique take on the world of augmented reality and VR. Malicki-Sanchez started out in music, acting, and new media. Thanks to that cross-section of disciplines, he believes that empathy has been missing from a lot of mainstream efforts with Virtual Reality, and he wants to establish a standard that allows for more personal creativity.

“I see a new wave coming,” said Malicki-Sanchez, when asked about the goals and motivations for FIVARS. “Twenty-five years ago the internet moved from mosaic into corporate interest. They killed the open spirit of it. I don’t want that. This could easily abused, and it will be by many.

“I wanted to create a very powerful assertion for creativity and experimentation, the avant garde. The personal stories, not just the spectacle.”


For me, that constant effort to elicit emotional empathy sets FIVARS apart from other VR festivals, making it the most varied VR event I’ve attended. Though not every exhibit was a success, all of them were interesting and they all attempt to get to the core of what I believe makes VR relevant. VR can literally put you in the shoes of someone you can’t be, whether it’s a refugee, a zombie, an astronaut, a first aid worker, or someone who just dropped some LSD.

“This tech is acting on you at a neurological level. There are repercussions if you don’t respect that,” said Malicki-Sanchez. “We created a festival that looks for unique mechanics to force constant innovation, and not get into a gimmicky rinse and repeat formula.”

At FIVARS, that means that they’re looking beyond the visual component of VR. An earnest and charming man named David Mckevy set up a black box lined speakers, and explained that he wanted to develop soundscapes to immerse someone in an audio version of VR.

Similarly, Vaudeville! is one of the only VR films that attempts to use the technology for comedic effect. Featuring a suspicious husband and his secretive wife, Vaudeville! uses classic sight gags and slapstick humour. Many VR filmmakers have struggled with comedic timing, but Vaudeville! is an admirable effort that tries to do something that the medium has yet to do well (it’s also on YouTube right now if you want to see it for yourself).

One of the more eclectic experiences is Dreamtime (top), a visual treat that is the closest thing to a drug trip you’ll see in VR. The visuals are a dreamscape of heavy hallucinogens, and it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of seeing something and then not seeing it. It plays with your vision like a magic eye puzzle that’s constantly in motion.


Of course, VR is at its best when it’s able to capture different life experiences. One of the standouts at the festival was Born into Exile, a short film that tells the story of two pregnant Syrian women living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and dealing with the limitations and complications that arise as a result. Their “homes” look like shipping containers, and the VR does a good job of communicating the scale and look of a room. It’s a powerful image that creates a much stronger impression than a comparable image in a traditional film.

Nobel’s Nightmare covers similar ground and brings you into the heart of the conflict in Syria. The film follows the Syrian Civil Defense Team, an unarmed group that does search and rescue in Aleppo that was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. You follow white helmeted volunteers as they enter bombed out buildings, and the affecting short film can help make the conflict feel present for people halfway around the world.

“We are so far removed North America,” said a woman waiting in line for Nobel’s Nightmare. “It’s very hard for us to understand or feel what’s going on.”


In keeping with the theme of innovation, FIVARS also serves as a forum for people to discuss the technical and aesthetic challenges of VR. The venue hosted panels throughout the weekend, including one with the creators of Edge of Space, a VR documentary from Koncept VR about launching one of the largest stratospheric balloons. In collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency and the French Space Agency, they filmed at an altitude of 40km and captured the first VR images of the earth shot in the upper stratosphere. They talked about the advance preparation they had to do to prepare to send the camera equipment up with the balloon.

“Your biggest issue is keeping batteries warm because your ambient temperature is minus 25 celsius,” said Joergen Geerds, the CEO of Koncept VR. “As the balloon launches you go through a cold layer that’s about minus 80 celsius. Then once you reach about 30-32 km it rises up and you end up with a layer that is about minus 25 celsius. Once they get cold they stop working and recording.”

The panel also discussed how the latest incarnation of VR is actually an extension of an idea more than one hundred years old. Irene Vandertop, an interactive designer and producer, talked about how an early form of VR was done at the world’s fair in Paris in 1901, where they created a complete panoramic 360 degree view of Paris using multiple projectors.

“The cameras got so hot that they were catching fire,” said Vandertop of the unfortunate limitations of the cameras in 1901.

VR is in a transient state, and it could very well be the next big media cash grab. However, FIVARS proves that VR can be much more than roller coaster simulators and cheap jump scares. VR is a unique tool for empathy, and the festival makes the case that pushing VR as an art form is a worthwhile endeavor. That’s true whether or not any individual film is a success or a failure, and the presence of both is what makes FIVARS so exciting.

David Mckevy in Audio VR
David Mckevy in Audio VR



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  • F. Scerbak

    Virtual reality is not a tool for empathy because that suggests that true understanding of another’s experiences can be translated over VR. VR might be better argued to be an “empathy simulator” because trying on someone else’s experience does not make it your own, nor does it substitute researching the larger factors contributing to someone else’s struggle.
    When we describe empathy as an objective (as in: virtual reality will achieve empathy), we ignore that it is an organic connection that cannot be substantially synthesized. Certainly empathy can be encouraged or mimed using VR, but we do not yet know if an emotional connection triggered by a VR experience will be sustained. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003999) The study I linked to shows that after cutting down a tree in VR, participants used less napkins, but only for up to one week. The duration of VR’s emotional impact is important because most people do not have easy access to VR devices yet. If VR is going to be used to activate empathetic response, then will we need constant stimuli in order to keep our empathy up? Will constant stimuli numb us to empathetic connection, as in the case of compassion fatigue? When we stop acting on our empathetic attachment, no change is made to better the situation that triggered that emotion.
    Certain groups are using VR to call for legislative change by making immersive films about the damage done by the prison system. (http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/09/16/project-empathy-vr) Others have found a profound increase in donations after screening a VR film called “Clouds Over Syria.” (http://www.theverge.com/2016/9/19/12933874/unvr-clouds-over-sidra-film-app-launch) Even in this article, Demelo brings up a film at the festival focusing on Syrian women in a refugee camp. Of course, the subject is timely and deserving of compassionate attention. However, those of us who are removed from the crisis are able to try on their experience and take it off. We leave feeling like we’ve learned something in the process, but if we are not then directed to methods to support or further educate ourselves, what was the purpose of the film building empathy?
    Even more negative than wanting to help but not being given the resources to is the voyeuristic nature of VR. Depictions of traumatic experiences have been used as entertainment since civilization began, and VR is the perfect platform for it to continue. David Zax sums up this issue by stating his fears of a “cultural elite going to VR film festivals, talking about how “visceral and moving” the experiences were over cocktails—and then doing nothing at all.” (https://www.fastcompany.com/3056425/most-creative-people/my-trippy-anxiety-triggering-day-spent-in-virtual-reality) Is VR a tool for empathy or for entertainment? Can we really force individual audience members to choose? No. Just as with all interactive media, the person in control of the experience is not actually the creator, but the participant.
    Participants can congratulate themselves on engaging with “difficult” subject matter and attaining a “higher understanding” of another person’s compromised state. This feeling of understanding is worthless and shallow, however, as highlighted in Anna Anthropy’s “Empathy Game.” In “Empathy Game,” Anthropy has players literally walk in her old boots, recording their steps and aiming for the biggest distance covered. This game is based in the idea that allyship isn’t something that someone earns from claiming they understand the experience of a marginalized group. Rather, allies are those who actively ally themselves with the cause by proving their investment without claiming the experience. It is important to have people care, but it’s crucial to actively show that they are invested in another’s well-being. Therefore, I believe VR could be a useful gateway to allyship, rather than a tool for empathy.