PBS Short Film Festival Enters Virtual Reality for 10th Year

by PBS on July 26, 2021
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To celebrate 10 years, the PBS Short Film Festival has entered a new reality: Virtual reality. In previous years, the PBS Short Film Festival was held in-person at a cinema. After theaters across the country shut down last year and large gatherings ceased due to the pandemic, PBS wanted to showcase the work of the talented filmmakers in a new way. Thus we recreated the theatre experience digitally in virtual reality (VR).

"Films like these are an inherently shared social experience intended to be consumed together in a theatre," Mikey Centrella, Director of Product Management, Digital Innovation Team at PBS, said. "Our goal with this festival is to celebrate the stories of underrepresented filmmaking voices and lend new opportunities to artists."

Now with "Virtual Screen on the Green," the experience offers a platform for these filmmakers to share their cinematic art to a wider audience and in a more engaging format.

The PBS Short Film Festival is part of a multiplatform initiative to increase the reach and visibility of independent filmmakers from across the country and amplify the voices of diverse content creators.

"Each film is timely, topical, and intended to spur heartfelt discussions, and even though participants can’t chat in this experience, the festival is intended to create a sense of community and evoke that feeling a lot of us have missed — being able to emotionally feel something together," Centrella said.

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VR has been around for decades, but with the proliferation of 5G, people becoming more comfortable with AR, headset technology becoming more accessible and the pandemic driving a content boom, VR is seeing heightened demand.

This year, PBS is trying a beta test this year to introduce viewers to a new way of watching PBS content in an immersive, virtual environment through the web, and solicit feedback to inform future releases or new products in VR/AR. Using WebXR technology, this experience is accessible through both a web browser and a compatible headset. Either will transport viewers to a virtual outdoor theatre setting.

Watching movies in a real movie theater means having the company of friends and strangers enjoying the same things as you at the same time. Visiting a virtual reality cinema is an immersive and exciting new way to recreate that shared part of the movie theater going experience in a public yet intimate setting.

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The environment the team created wasn’t meant to be ultra photo-realistic. It is just close enough to make some feel as if participants are actually in a physical space. When participants enter, each individual is prompted to choose an avatar with a range of characters, some based on PBS personalities, and others just for fun.

At the center sits a large-scale outdoor cinema screen.

Participants can choose from one of two environments — either a grassy daytime setting surrounded by a cityscape, or a moonlit, tree-laden campground.

All 25 films play back to back, and next to it, a poster with details about the current film and short to follow. As more participants join, the space is populated with more avatars.

Participants can explore the environment and move around independently to find a location that works for them. They can also interact with film posters to learn more about the films.

But just like in a real movie theater, you can’t or should not really talk to one another when the movie is playing. So at the moment, participants can not speak to one another. This beta experience is all about watching the films together virtually, but the team may consider adding in reactions, polls or audio chat at a later date.

To try the experience out for yourself, visit: vr.pbs.org.