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Electric Dreams

Joe Hunting/Sundance Institute

We Met in Virtual Reality (2022)

Scratch a modern innovation and something older, if not ancient, emerges. Virtual Reality was a term before anyone had even made a working transistor and some similar concepts occupied the Ancient Greeks, while no culture on the planet has failed to ponder the wet malfunctioning bag of gunk we have to cart around all the time, and wondered what the life of the mind might get up to if it wasn't held back by the life of the body. V.R. technology brings fresh perspectives on all this, and several positive viewpoints are available inside the online virtual community VRChat shown in Joe Hunting's documentary "We Met in Virtual Reality," perspectives offered up by enthusiastic Anime-inspired avatars of people who are undoubtedly being just as enthusiastic back at home.

The sweet and personable cast of characters — the word seems the right one — socializing in VRChat's communal venues and leisure spots have different views of their virtual world and its relationship to the one outside. Horned hunk DragonHeart proposes to girlfriend IsYourBoi in the film, in front of a party of applauding friends. "Would you marry me in VRChat, and hopefully one day I'll marry you in real life," he asks her, framing the V.R. existence as a path to something else, somewhere else. They talk about telling their future grand-kids how they met. Other residents are more fulfilled in V.R. than in their vanilla real-world lives, building a content existence in the electronic ether. The most touching, thought provoking episodes are ones with sign-language teacher Jenny and her friend Ray, a deaf person with a female avatar but referred to as male. "Signing in to V.R. is a big transition," says Jenny of Ray, using a resonant word with a modern context, although the basic drive here can also be good old-fashioned gnosis, finding truths other than ones you have been stuck with.

Ray mourns a dead brother in the film, delivering in sign language some genuinely moving words of elegy before releasing a Chinese lantern as big as a double bed. The virtual camera pans round, a little jerkily, to follow the virtual lantern up into the virtual sky; and the issue of viewer manipulation does arise. Mr. Hunting made the film using VRCLens, an add-on technology that allows third-person camerawork within the V.R. world, and has reasonably enough used it for effect and affect. One question from an off-camera individual is asked and answered before the camera turns at deadpan-comedy pace to reveal that the questioner is Kermit the Frog. He seems to be the only recognizable corporate entity in VRChat's magic kingdom—not counting the off-brand "Jurassic Park" where Steven Spielberg's giant brontosaurus regards the avatars as he might some distant relatives — and one thing missing from this picture is the never-invisible hand of the market. When the earlier V.R. world Second Life had its moment in the sun two decades ago, branded establishments and sponsored events sprung up rapidly, although nothing of that kind passes in front of this film's virtual lens. Not yet. The self-fulfillment and bootstrap empowerment of all the moderns in this film is infectiously appealing; but somewhere over the pixelated horizon Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse is stirring.


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