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Art, terror and erections showcase VR potential

"Can you tell the difference between what is and isn't real?" intones Tilda Swinton as the room disintegrates into pixels.

Swinton is the latest star to lend her talents to the world of virtual reality, which has been quietly building into a medium with incredible – and disconcerting – potential.

She narrates "Goliath," about a man's descent into schizophrenia, illustrated by startling visual effects and interactive experiences that illustrate his slippery hold on reality.

A visitor views a film in virtual reality (VR) at the Palazzo del Casino, as part of the Venice VR Expanded Programme during the 78th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. AFP
A visitor views a film in virtual reality (VR) at the Palazzo del Casino, as part of the Venice VR Expanded Programme during the 78th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. AFP
It premiered in the VR section of the Venice Film Festival which ran until yesterday.

It was far from the only intense experience on offer to those willing to don helmets and flail around in a booth.

"Container" was a particularly arresting experience.

One minute, the container is filling with water as a woman tries desperately to keep from drowning, then suddenly it becomes a massage parlor with a man trying to force a woman into sex, then suddenly a tiny sweatshop in which a family of garment workers are toiling away.

The viewer is so utterly immersed, effectively standing just centimetres away from the characters, that it feels viscerally, uncomfortably real.

"VR is immersive theatre meeting technology. It has extreme potential, it goes beyond the wildest imagination of what people can experience spatially and artistically," May Abdalla, co-creator of "Goliath," told AFP.

"Not every project suits VR. You need to find the right experience," Abdalla added.

One of the most daring at Venice was "In the Mist," which skirts a delicate line between art and porn.

Given that its 15-minute running time is almost entirely filled with naked men fellating and penetrating each other in a sauna, some might feel the line is crossed.

Michel Reilhac, Venice VR co-curator, insisted it should be seen as naked contemporary dance that "transcends sexuality," though he added that the porn industry was the only sector to turn a profit with VR for now.

VR competitions have become a regular feature of film festivals around the world, from Sundance to Cannes, but many remain unaware of how quickly the medium is evolving.

"The tech has reached the point where the makers are no longer fascinated by the tech... where it can call itself a fully-fledged artform," said Reilhac.

Topics: Tilda Swinton , virtual reality , VR , Venice Film Festival
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