One of the world's first virtual reality cinemas has opened its doors in Berlin. DW's Elizabeth Grenier tried it out, survived - and was surprised to find a quirky atmosphere and a short film on the refugee debate.
I was a bit nervous on my way to the Virtual Reality Cinema. I wondered: To avoid the famous virtual reality sickness, was it safer to go on an empty stomach or should I quickly gulp down a sandwich? I decided to avoid eating - I didn't really have time anyway.
The Virtual Reality Cinema in Berlin was established by &samhoud media, a Dutch production company led by the 26-year-old entrepreneur Jip Samhoud. The other one he previously opened in Amsterdam, in March 2016, is said to be the first virtual reality cinema in the world.
The Berlin cinema is not too far away from Alexanderplatz, behind the Rotes Rathaus, Berlin's town hall. One has to go through a couple of huge courtyards before reaching the actual building of the cinema. A wooden corridor decorated with hipster-style party banners and urban art leads to the entrance.
This wasn't what I was expecting. It felt more like one of Berlin's cool clubs along the Spree River than a high-tech VR cinema. The girls greeting us at the entrance confirmed my impressions: "This whole building complex houses a club and workshops for artists - the Spreewerkstätten," they told me.
I then went up the stairs of an old factory building, landing in a couple of old restrooms before actually reaching the lobby of the cinema that looked like a speakeasy-style bar. Going with the flow of the atmosphere, I decided to forget my empty-stomach rule and grabbed a glass of wine and the complimentary popcorn.
Retro meets the future
The location manager, Michael Yosef, told me more about the location he was asked to find: "They basically wanted 'something cool'." He then pointed to another room with (no longer functioning) showers, explaining this used to be a washroom for factory workers. The techno club, Praegewerk, still runs downstairs.
Retro objects and quirky paintings decorate the space, as well as quotes from the early ages of cinema, such as from the 1916 manifest of Futurist Cinema by F.T. Marinetti: "We shall set in motion the words-in-freedom that smash the boundaries of literature as they march towards painting, music, noise-art, and throw a marvelous bridge between the word and the real object."
"The goal was to create a mix between the future - with virtual reality cinema - and a retro atmosphere bringing us back to the beginnings of cinema," said Pascal Steeghs, spokesperson for the VR cinema.
Amidst Dali's world
It was time to face virtual reality. We all entered a second room, where swiveling chairs, special VR glasses and headphones were awaiting us. I was confirmed I could use the VR gear without my glasses, so I took them off - and automatically fell into my clumsy mode.
"Don't forget to turn your head and move around during the film," said the founder of the cinema, Jip Samhoud, during his short introduction. That's when I realized that my bags and glass of wine were in the way. Getting my stuff together was another overwhelming challenge in my awkward blind state.
Reassuringly, several employees were running around to help us get started. And off I went, right into Salvador Dali's universe, as long legged elephants walked all around and over me amidst a surreal desert.
Swiveling in a VR bubble
Although we were all sitting together, there's no official beginning to the films. Everybody drifts off in their own VR bubble - though you might rub knees with your neighbor while rotating on your chair.
Along with the Dali dream sequence, a series of different short films made up the 30-minute program: an animated short, a music video clip with musicians doing funky stuff all around the viewer, another trippy sequence and finally a short film directed by the founder of the cinema himself.
A refugee on virtual reality TV
Jip Samhoud's film, called "In Your Face," stars two top Dutch actors - a couple in the film - who get a sudden visit from a reality TV crew. They put the stars on the spot by asking them if they could host a refugee in their trendy apartment. After all, the two celebrities have often publically claimed their support for refugees, so they should naturally be ready to welcome one into their lives.
As the couple tries to keep their professional smile while uncomfortably debating on what to do, they finally turn to us, the viewer, breaking the fourth wall - or whatever you might call it in virtual reality - to confirm that if they're just virtual, we can take action in real life.
"I wanted to inspire people to see a new reality," director Jip Samhoud told me afterwards. He knew he wanted to address a social issue in his first VR film, and the refugee crisis is a hot discussion topic in the Netherlands, just like in Germany.
Just an appetizer
The mix of genres in the film program makes it difficult to recommend the experience to a specific public. Samhoud is aware of that: "We wanted to show a broad overview to start out with, but we'll be adding new programs every month, and eventually we'll offer special horror or romantic compilations, for example," he said.
For now, they are still working on collecting material, a challenge in itself in these early days of VR cinema: "We're currently in touch with every VR producer in the world," explained the young businessman.
Still in the early phases
Virtual reality cinema is still in its first steps. It's a challenge as a director, for example, to get the viewer to focus on something specific. "In horror movies, they might use eight zombies to make sure you experience it fully," Samhoud explains.
Luckily for me, there weren't any hardcore roller-coasters or eight-headed monsters in the program that night. Because of my poor eyesight, I wasn't quite sure about the focus, which reminded me of the stress I feel at an eye doctor's test, when asked to decide which of two OK pictures is best. I felt a slight headache coming on but didn't get nauseous despite the wine.
Jip Samhoud confirmed that even though my short-sightedness probably didn't help, the images aren't perfect yet. "We're still on the ground level of virtual reality. It's not like real life yet - but it will get there," he said with a charming smile.
Whether this perspective is attractive or not can be debated. However, as one of the pioneers of VR cinema, the young entrepreneur and film director Jip Samhoud will definitely be in a good position whenever that happens.