Boulder International Film Festival launches first Virtual Reality Pavilion

If you goOpening Night Red Carpet Gala: 8 p.m. Thursday at the Boulder Theater; $50; screening of United Kingdom feature film "Their Finest," starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Jeremy Irons and Richard E. GrantClosing Night:...

Boulder International Film Festival launches first Virtual Reality Pavilion

If you go

Opening Night Red Carpet Gala: 8 p.m. Thursday at the Boulder Theater; $50; screening of United Kingdom feature film "Their Finest," starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Jeremy Irons and Richard E. Grant

Closing Night: 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Boulder Theater; $30; screening of Boulder-based feature documentary "Chasing Coral," produced and directed by Jeff Orlowski

More information at

If you go

What: BIFF's Virtual Reality Pavilion

When: 1-8 p.m. Friday, March 3; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, March 4

Where: Galvanize, 1023 Walnut St., Boulder

Kick-off party: 5-7 p.m. Friday, March 3

More info: 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday, March 4, network with other creators, share work and technologies with filmmakers and newbies to virtual reality.

BIFF Beats

BIFF runs March 2-5 at various venues across Boulder and Longmont. Here's a lineup of the live, local music to check out:

Opening Night Red Carpet Gala: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2, at the Hotel Boulderado, will feature Espresso! at 5:30 p.m.; Rembrandt Yard will feature Amelie Trio at 5:30 p.m.

Singer-songwriter showcase at The Lazy Dog on Friday, March 3, will feature: Kenny Lee Young at 4 p.m., Bethel Steele at 5 p.m., Antonio Lopez at 6 p.m., Girlfriend Duties at 7 p.m., and Bryce Merritt at 8 p.m.

Late Night Live at The Lazy Dog on Friday, March 3, will feature The Alcapones from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.

CineCHEF at Rembrandt Yard on Friday, March 3, will feature Bill Kopper from 5-7 p.m.

Singer-songwriter showcase at The Lazy Dog on Saturday, March 4, will feature Bella Musser at 4 p.m., Amy Kress at 5 p.m., Halle Tomlinson at 6 p.m., John Common at 7 p.m., and Melissa Ivey at 8 p.m.

Late Night Live at The Lazy Dog on Saturday, March 5, will feature Nederland's Cycles and The Jauntees from Boston from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.

Longmont Opening Night Gala

BIFF Noir Party Prohibition Style at the Hotel Boulderado's bar, License #1, will feature the Jeremy Mohney Trio Sunday at 8 p.m.

Closing Night, at Boulder Theater Sunday, March 5, will feature Styles Bitchly Trio from 6:15-7:15 p.m.

"Twenty years from now, we'll be wearing implants," said Wayne Ottinger, standing in a hallway outside of his son's virtual reality lounge on Pearl Street. "Maybe 10 years. We'll have arm and brain implants."

The prediction isn't really too far off. Wayne's son, Bob Ottinger, is the owner of Boulder's Reality Garage, a donation-based lounge and maker-space for virtual reality experiences. The Reality Garage is a sponsor of the brand new Virtual Reality Pavilion at the Boulder International Film Festival in early March.

"We'll be at the event talking about VR," said Ottinger. "We'll have some stuff to play with, some fun toys."

To check out these toys, a visit to the Reality Garage on Monday offered an immersive experience of a wildly different dimension. With headset and handset secured by Bob Ottinger, a 12-year-old Amelie Gentry (who called herself a "helper" at Reality Garage and a VR enthusiast) walked me through my experience in a room of the basement floor at 1320 Pearl St. (Gentry was in charge of making sure I didn't run into chairs or swat at screens.)

My unchartered experience

I was a little nervous. Recent binge-watching of Netflix's "Stranger Things" could've played a part, but ultimately it was a case of the sea legs traversing my uncharted experience.

"Don't be scared," said Gentry. "Look down."

As George Morris, of Boulder, helped his two children navigate their worlds behind us, I looked down and at my opaque, glowing hands inside the world of Oculus Touch: First Contact.

Then a charming helper of a robot appeared. Gentry explained that it's a little skittish, so I needed to coax it out.

"Hey buddy. Give me five," I said, waving at it. It waved back and brought me what looked like an '80s Nintendo cartridge.

"Now grab that disc and put it in that slot," Gentry said. "You'll see butterflies."

A 3-D printer formed a handful of pink butterflies that floated around the space.

"Point with your index finger and the butterflies will land on your finger," Gentry said.

"This is so cool," I said, nearly a couple dozen times.

"Now take the butterfly disc out and toss it," said Gentry. The cartridge floated in the air next to me.

Then the robot, a doppleganger of Johnny Five ("Short Circuit"), handed me three more discs. After pulling the tab on a sparking rocket that shot through the air, blowing up moving targets around the room and poltergeist-style maneuvering aluminum cans with the help of a glowing orb, the tutorial ended in an '80s sci-fi flashback of digital squares quickly building around me, then bursting into glowing orbs.

("This is so cool.")

I ended the tutorial in the game's menu, much like a hotel lobby, and Gentry told me to explore.

"You can walk a little. I'll tell you when you're going to run into something," said Gentry. (Not 10 seconds later, "Wait, you're going to run into a chair," she said, laughing.)

8 films with VR technology

Aside from screening 58 films (three are Sundance award-winning films, four are nominated for Academy Awards), its short-film program, the local chef-inspired CineCHEF and plenty of live local music, BIFF is diving into the virtual world on Friday and Saturday during the fest to reveal "the future of storytelling," said the festival's co-founder and director Kathy Beeck in an interview earlier this month.

Over the festival's long weekend, films will be screened at various spots in Boulder and Longmont, and Boulder's technical school and co-working space, Galvanize, 1023 Walnut St., will host the VR Pavilion, which will be free and open to the public.

"As far as format goes, this is very new," said Nicholas Whitaker, training and development manager for Google's News Lab and the VR Pavilion panel host. "What I'm most excited about with virtual reality and 360 video is really less about the technology itself, and more about the storytelling capabilities of it."

Whitaker said he gathered some local pros in the VR world to join in on three tech and storyteller talks that will cover everything from 360-degree cameras in real estate to virtual reality in cinema. There will be nearly a dozen stations with virtual reality hardware for users to experience, and the pavilion will feature eight films provided by BIFF that use virtual reality technology — including the highly-anticipated premiere of Boulder filmmaker Jeff Orlowski's "Chasing Coral The VR Experience" and Patrick Osborn's Oscar-nominated "Pearl."

Ottinger said one of the two rooms will be devoted to curated experiences with BIFF's film selections, and another room will be devoted to a space where "people can putz around and have fun," with some "cool experiences." Whitaker said there will be various high-tech headsets for users to try on and experience the virtual event. .

The three discussions, Whitaker said, will delve into the process of creating virtual reality from various areas of the industry — from workflow to developing a compatible story.

VR for layfolk

While a photo holds a one-dimensional structure and viewpoint, Whitaker said virtual reality immerses the user in the experience, giving them full command.

"(The user) has control over the narrative in ways that the content creator wouldn't have in other formats, in other mediums," he said.

Whitaker said that unseasoned virtual reality users will most likely experience this content on a mobile phone. But, unlike the gaming industry — which has been immersing gamers in content for decades — this form of virtual storytelling for mainstream audiences is now becoming much more common. And more importantly, more accessible.

"The high-end cameras offer a great cinematic experience, but what I'm more interested in is what can you do with your mobile device," said Whitaker. "We want to show that you can actually lower the barrier of entry quite a bit with this new technology and make it accessible to both creators and users. They don't necessarily need a thousand-dollar computer system, they just need a mobile device."

Especially with an affordable apparatus, like Google Cardboard, Whitaker said non-tech types can experience the reality for just a couple bucks.

Virtual flaws

Currently, the virtual world is at an "in-between period," said Whitaker. Modes of viewing this type of content can be cumbersome, especially with the bulky and "heavy" headset.

And Ottinger, who was a software engineer at Qualcomm and Ericsson for 20-plus years before opening Reality Garage, said a major hiccup of VR is the incompatibility between systems and products. He compared the quandary to VHS and Betamax video — two similar concepts, but two vastly different formats. (Plus, Facebook now owns Oculus and many systems only work with HTC equipment, Ottinger said.)

But Whitaker said that when the paradigm shifts to augmented or mixed reality, when devices are more lightweight and cross-platform play is more common, virtual reality will see more of a shift. Until then, Whitaker said, in order to meet mass-consumption needs, VR needs to be as seamless as possible.

"You need either an amazing storytelling or you need something compelling enough to have a person take that extra step or effort," said Whitaker. "Getting somebody to take a device, put it on their face, and hold it a few minutes while that story transpires, that's a huge job."

The basic pieces, the distribution platforms, content creation tools and audience are all there, Whitaker said.

"I think the biggest piece that's missing right now are the stories," said Whitaker. He said the crew hopes to spark discussion at BIFF's VR Pavilion about these issues.

"It's new technology and old-form storytelling," Whitaker said. "If we can encourage enough people to create good, rich stories to share, all the pieces are there."

Give input at the Pavilion

So will we all be wearing these bulky headsets all the time one day? Or will we be implanted like Ottinger's father, Wayne, suggested.

Neither, said Ottinger. The experience is far too stimulating to extend more than maybe 20 minutes, Ottinger said.

"Beyond that, it's almost too intense," Ottinger said.

To get to the point of experiencing a feature-length film in virtual reality, the way of storytelling will need to be altered, Ottinger said. Take quick cutting from one scene to the next in film — if it's not cohesive, it can be nauseating.

"One of the current things that has cropped up in the user experience is with issues of nausea or disorientation," Whitaker said. "The way we experience the world around us, and the way we experience media, has always been a flat or planar surface. It's always been a stable surface. With a lot of these VR headsets, we're putting them on and suddenly our head becomes the tripod, our head becomes the camera movement."

Whitaker said the experts will discuss these flaws and look for user input at the VR Pavilion.

"What are some of the struggles with content creation and actually creating a story that doesn't disrupt the viewing experience," Whitaker said. "Nausea is one of those things. So we almost have to learn new film language. We have to learn new storytelling for this particular type of experience so that you can get away from disorientation and make it as frictionless as possible. What I'm really hoping is others who have never experienced VR before, or are curious about it, come with their questions. Dialogue and creating that open space of communication is really what we're trying to achieve."

Christy Fantz: 303-473-1107, or

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