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the tech nomad

Virtual reality gets its own film festival and followers

Kelly Zhang tries viewing a film on an Oculus VR headset at the festival.aram boghosian for the boston globe

For a moment, suspend disbelief and enter a painting. Venture into a room of brush strokes where Vincent van Gogh sits, smokes a pipe, and listens to the tinkle of a song on a piano. It’s a three-dimensional glimpse into the world of van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe.” Now, walk toward the window. Look into the sky. It’s his painting “The Starry Night,” and a yellow moon is swirling in a sea of blue.

All of this is seen with the aid of a chunky headset, heard through a pair of headphones, and lived while sitting in a swivel chair. It’s virtual reality, a means to transport the mind to another place. That “transporting” took place in a dimly lighted space on Sept. 29, when filmmakers and VR geeks converged on the Kaleidoscope Virtual Reality Film Festival at Artists for Humanity in South Boston.


“It’s like they’re in another world,” said Ryan Shaw, 20, a junior at Emerson College and volunteer at the event.

Participants sank into chairs and donned Samsung Gear VR and Oculus VR headsets. Shaw adjusted the gear and watched as a row of people looked up and down and straight ahead, interacting with an environment only they could see.

The festival is in its inaugural year, traveling and introducing people in the United States and Canada to new technologies and a variety of VR films. Festival co-director René Pinnell, 32, of San Francisco, said the language for the art form is just starting to be invented, but the scene is growing, with VR meetups popping up in cities all over the world.

The stereotype, he said, of VR as a passing fad with clunky equipment is fading as the technology advances every six months. The gear weighs about a pound. He expects it eventually to be the size of a contact lens.


“There isn’t the right word for this yet,” said Pinnell, the founder of Kaleidoscope. “They aren’t films. . . . I like to call them experiences.”

The room was packed with students, artists, and filmmakers who see the potential in a technology that has come light years from its origins. The headsets took viewers to Aleppo, Syria, South Korea, and inside the human mind to see what happens to brain chemistry as someone falls in love.

“This is the future right here,” said Michelle Osorio, a filmmaker from California who lives part time in Boston. She attended her first Boston VR Meetup in June. “That night after the meeting, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about what I could do with this new medium.”

A storyteller with a penchant for sci-fi, she’s created what she calls “immersive, 360-degree videos” for YouTube and recently worked on a VR zombie movie. It’s all very DIY, supported by fellow dreamers and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. Osorio has high hopes for VR and sees creative types like herself as pioneers. Now they just need to find their greats, she said, the Spielbergs, Scorseses, and Almodóvars of VR.

Multimedia journalist Alexandra Glorioso, 28, of Washington, D.C., spoke at the event about her project called “Reframe Iran.” The VR film lets viewers see into the art studios of Iranian artists around the world. It presents insights into their struggles to achieve in a world that expects them to produce political or social commentary.


“This film gives you the artist’s point-of-view,” Glorioso said. “Often they’re expected to represent Iran endlessly in their work, but they haven’t been able to go back for decades.”

Nearby, in line for the night’s favorite film, “Surge,” by director Arjan van Meerten of the Netherlands, two Harvard students waited eagerly to use the headsets. They represent a nonprofit started by undergraduates called “Dreamporte.”

“We use virtual reality technology to talk about social issues and introduce students to new places and cultures,” said Kelly Zhang, 20, a junior and human developmental and regenerative biology major.

The program, which began as a pilot last year with students from a foster care support group, is now offered after school at Rindge Avenue Upper School in Cambridge. Zhang remembers a student experiencing what it was like at the top of Mount Everest through the VR headsets and telling her he wanted to climb a mountain one day. It may not be real, but it still inspires ambition.

For Connor Doyle, 18, a Harvard freshman from the United Kingdom, a background in theater prepared him to appreciate the quirks of virtual reality, of bringing the watcher into the story line. At the VR station Doyle ran, the person seated and wearing the headset is the world’s greatest acrobat, balancing precariously on a sky-high stack of wooden chairs.

“My favorite part is when they take off their mask and there’s this euphoric look,” Doyle said. “A look of childlike amazement.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com.