Now Playing! The Next Frontier: Virtual Reality at the Exploratorium

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Still from 'Collisions.' (Photo © Piers Mussared)

When the first moviegoers were shown a train heading toward them in 1895, they reportedly fled in fear to the back of the small auditorium. Their brains couldn’t process Louis Lumiere’s moving images as, well, images. (Arrival of A Train won’t affect you the same way, of course, although I hope you are more imaginative and empathetic than YouTube commenters.) A century and a quarter later, its proponents assert that virtual reality delivers the ultimate in experiential journeys. The one thing we know about new technology is that it’s always accompanied by boatloads of hype, but there's no denying that VR can be powerful stuff in the right hands.

Australian artist Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions, on view at the Exploratorium through Oct. 22 as part of Field of View: Mapping Emerging Media Technologies, insinuates us into the worldview of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan. In the late 1950s, he was introduced to Western “civilization” when he witnessed an atomic test. (The Australian government wasn’t especially concerned with the wellbeing of native people in those days.) All these years later, Morgan transmits to us the story (and moral) he’s handed down to generations of his Martu tribe.

The promise of VR, it often seems to me, is the same as the original promise of motion pictures: To deliver a visceral experience unattainable through the written word or photographs. The Exploratorium’s April 21 After Dark program, Field of Vision: Storytelling, goes beyond (future) shock and awe to showcase works that adapt narratives to VR. Or is it the other way around? Either way, the virtual reality train is in the station. All aboard!