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Let's look behind the scene of the VR experience success The Key. Image courtesy The Key.

The Key is a huge VR success. It aims to provide a deeply metaphorical vision of the experiences of refugees. This is the story behind this work of art.

The Key took center stage at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a VR experience like no other. It’s based the concept of refugees holding onto seemingly mundane relics that are actually packed with meaning.

“Most refugees — even though they will never go back home, or their house is destroyed by war or being taken by other people — most of them cannot let go of the key to their house,” director and producer Celine Tricart said in an interview last week. It was the concept of an unusable key that was the driving force behind the VR experience.


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The Key ended up winning the festival’s Storyscapes competition. It’s the top prize that is awarded to only one project out of a handful of others. The award recognizes innovative approaches and storytelling.

Scene from The Key
The experience uses watercolor skies, primary colors, and a bare landscape. Image courtesy The Key.

More than VR

One of the most innovative things about this VR experience is that it doesn’t just rely on VR. At the beginning of the experience, you put a VR headset on. From there the headset’s soundtrack syncs with the speaker collar you’re wearing. It makes the transition from the real-world to VR more seamless than many other experiences.

“VR is mostly a sensory experience, visual and sound,” Tricart said. The majority of the experience visually uses primary colors and a lunar-like landscape. However, as the experience moves forward, you begin to lose colors slowly.

Interviewing refugees to bring their experiences to the world

While on the project, Tricart worked with an Atlanta nonprofit Friends of Refugees through the Oculus VR for Good program. There she and her partners interviewed many refugees to try and find shared experiences.

“We took those moments, and it was all about building these sensory metaphors,” Tricart said. “How can I make you feel those emotions, but not tell you what it is?”

At one point in the experience, the more artistic approach that’s taken throughout changes into realism and the viewer learns the truth behind the experience. In fact, the refugees aren’t even mentioned until the end.

“There’s so many metaphors in the story. For me, the goal was not to have a single person understand all of them,” she said. “There actually is a real syndrome of forgetting” inside the refugee community, she continued. “The concept of the key — it’s like you’re unlocking the memories that are, in a sense, compartmentalized as a survival mechanism.”

An experience that sticks with you

Once you finish The Key at Tribeca, you are given a key. It is attached to your festival lanyard. In many ways, it gives you knowledge over others, because you’ve experienced something that those without keys haven’t. Those that have gone through the experience will be able to relate. It is a symbol of a journey you’ve taken and, like in the story, becomes more than just a key.

Image courtesy The Key


  1. I found “The Key” unimaginably depressing, especially during this current coronavirus pandemic. It was confusing in that the viewer is supposedly expected to “make some difficult decisions,” but we’re not given any sort of guidance or instructions on what our part is, so we have no way of knowing whether we made the “right” decisions or not. Overall, the entire film was disheartening and depressing; I was expecting, from the brightness of the key itself, to have some sort of hopeful, inspiring ending. Instead, I was left confused, somewhat dazed, and feeling cheated — wait, this was just some sort of “help the refugees” activist plea?

    I get that refugees are in a horrible plight and should be helped. But taking the viewer through this desolate, dystopic world with no hope at the end was just devastating, especially since the entire world right now is already feeling stressed and pretty hopeless as it is. The short bit underwater with the mermaid-type creatures made it seem like there was some beautiful thing waiting — like discovering one’s true inner self, or one’s greater purpose — instead, it was the memory of what the key meant, and that was it. The key to a home you can never go home to. How utterly depressing and devastating is that?!

    It’s been two days now and I very much wish I had never watched “The Key.” I’m having a hard time getting past the letdown at the end, the experience of seeing all those beings lined up and watching their “companions” be destroyed. The only word is “devastating.”

    Perhaps at another time, a film like this would have a better place. I’m not denying its message. The timing of it (on VR at least), during this global crisis, was insensitive, heartless, and cruel. More mental and emotional trauma added to an already extremely difficult situation.

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