Walking through the packed floor of VRLA this past weekend, I was overwhelmed with high-tech gadgets and the ways we can now propel ourselves into immersive worlds. We can teleport to other time periods, fight dozens of robots (while also being a robot) and collect holographic easter eggs. Yet, as we augment our senses, just what are we subtracting?
One experience at the conference that seemed to provide some answers to that question was a 360-film called, Rose Colored, written and directed by the much-lauded Adam Cosco and produced by INVAR Studios, a relatively new VR company with big ambitions (Elizabeth Koshy and Vincent Edwards are the credited Producers).
Rose Colored is reminiscent of independent films of the late 1990s/early 2000s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, et al.), wherein technology allows characters to question the nature of romantic relationships in heightened relief.
“Rose Colored is a story that posits the question that, as we allow technology into our life and affect our perception, what is going to happen?” said Cosco. “Are we going to enter a world where we can’t even tell the difference between fiction and reality?”
The full project is 16 minutes long, and features 6K video with 3D Spatial Audio from Mixed Immersion Studios in London. At the beginning of the experience, Victoria (Mariana Novak) has a seemingly perfect life. Beyond her flawless looks and sleek apartment, she also has a handsome boyfriend named Ben (Adam Huber) who always seems to know the perfect thing to say.
But one morning, her lover’s word choice begins to concern her. Is he repeating himself? Something feels off. She employs her AI, Klive (played by Jason Peter Kennedy as a more “Beta-male” type) and asks to see clips from her relationship. In this Black Mirror-esque world, your entire life is recorded via contact lenses which then sync to a brain-based network.
There’s some real tech behind the eye and brain interfaces depicted in Cosco’s film. For example: Elon Musk’s Neural Lace project, Samsung’s contacts with embedded cameras, and Google’s glucose monitoring lenses for Diabetes sufferers.
(WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS) Eventually, with the help of an anti-virus software equivalent, Victoria realizes that much like the world around her, her relationship with her boyfriend has been…augmented. Specifically—and this is where things get the most interesting—a typically distracted and work-focused significant other is suddenly calm, doting, and attentive. Ben seeks commitment, even discussing what wedding rings to buy. But unfortunately, these moments are not real. Klive has fabricated them in order to make his user happy based on what he predicts will please her.
“She sees the truth for what it really is,” said Novak. “Her rose-colored glasses are taken off.”
Instead of ending things right then and there, Victoria and her boyfriend decide to remove their contacts and “see” each other for the first time at the end of the film.
Although their relationship might now be based in reality, as a viewer I did not feel confident in the couple’s future. If Victoria desires a partner who is perfectly attentive and compassionate, of course he’s going to fall flat. Maybe she’d be better off just being alone and hanging out with her AI. Or, better yet, finding a guy that naturally strives to give her that type of attention. It reminded me of the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—the couple will continue to use technology to erase each other, and then of course keep falling in love again and again. We already adjust our perceptions to the outside world online—how are we supposed to not do the very same thing once we can walk around with perfect camera angles at all times via augmentation? We can try all we want, but with the proliferation of technology, it feels inevitable that love is about to get very weird—and Rose Colored highlights one such way.
Rose Colored is not a film for the static viewer; it demands head-shifting for a complete vision of the story. Even though I was sitting in a chair, I had to keep twisting my neck and body in order to see all the angles. There might be an argument here about the complications in truly seeing your partner, but it also might mean that one view of the piece isn’t quite enough to get the full picture.
It has been said again and again, but the power of VR lies in its storytelling—it’s what makes people want to put on a headset past the initial “wow” introduction. It doesn’t matter how cool your tech is, if your story is weak, you aren’t going to engage your viewers. This film is an example of a story that’d be great in any medium, but is tailored to work best in VR. Cosco is one of the few writer/directors currently foregrounding nuanced story as a priority in virtual reality filmmaking, lending his work a legitimacy and resonance that speaks for itself.
So what’s next for Cosco and Rose Colored? Per the director, this piece is a de facto pilot for an anthology VR series about emerging technologies and their impact on our experience of life. Cosco will begin shopping the concept to buyers, which feels very timely given the mainstream warm up to VR—especially given the Hollywood turnout at VRLA.
“It’s about how we could be fooled into thinking our perception is something other than it is,” said Cosco. “It’s about how we see each other.”
Retaining that compassion is invaluable in our relationship to technology and with each other. But is it already too late?