Today I downloaded “Dispatch” for the Oculus Rift. Knowing nothing about it other than the fact that it was a free download in the Oculus Store, I thought I’d check it out.

It is most simply described as a VR film, created by the studio Here Be Dragons, which tells a story entirely from the point of view of a police dispatcher named “Ted” via the 911 calls he receives. Since the story is based on the conversations Ted has over the phone, the visual elements are what he imagines is happening based on sound cues. So, when a new sound appears, new visual elements will often appear as well. And when Ted realizes he’s hearing something different than what he’d originally thought, the elements change to accommodate the shift in Ted’s awareness.

The story is broken into 4 six-minute episodes, and it turns out that only the first one was free, but it was compelling enough that I ended up buying the rest as well (I think they cost $3.00 total). It turned out to be possibly the best piece of narrative storytelling I’ve seen yet in VR. The film’s success is due in no small part to the outstanding voice actors and sound design, as well as the surprisingly sparse and impressionistic visual style–more reminiscent of the 1980s tank-based arcade game Battlezone than of a traditional film or even a traditional VR experience. When the 1st episode started, I was initially dubious, but after a few clever narrative beats I found myself caught up in the story. By the end of the 3rd episode my jaw had dropped just short of the floor, and now I’m desperately waiting for the concluding episode which is frustratingly “coming soon.”

I was excited enough by it that I ran back to the media lab and grabbed one of my student workers, Lenny, who is a filmmaker and editor himself, so I could watch someone else experience it. It was fascinating seeing him watch the film for the first time, and since I could see on the computer monitor what he was seeing on the Oculus, I was able to note consistencies between his reaction and mine; he noticed the same details, looked at the same things, and had the same emotional responses, which tells me that Writer & Director Edward Robles not only knows how to construct a compelling story, but also how to take advantage of the strengths of this new medium of VR film. Robles takes advantage of existing film conventions, while breaking others, and even manages to develop new ones that draw us in, guide our attention, and move us through the story. I was amazed at how effectively the film manipulated my emotional state with such a simple visual language and with so much use of negative space, rather than always trying to fill the visual sphere that VR affords. This also allowed Robles to direct my attention, since only the details he deemed important to the story were on screen at any given moment.

Fair warning: This is not a story for kids. It contains some disturbing and violent scenes, as well as some adult language, although nothing that is gratuitous in terms of the story. If you have an Oculus Rift or Gear VR and three dollars to spare, I strongly encourage you to download Dispatch and purchase the extra 3 episodes–if for no other reason than to support excellent projects like this one. But for the rest of you here at Penn, I have it installed on our Oculus in the Weigle Information Commons. Stop by the Vitale Digital Media Lab to get in touch with me if you’d like to see Dispatch yourself.

Check out the 1-minute movie trailer online.

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