By Annunziata Gianzero
You sit at a desk, stand in a projected white circle, get strapped into a mock space capsule seat, or (as I did) get outfitted into a full-body “synesthesia suit.” A set of goggles is placed on your head and earphones are adjusted. A voice, emanating from beyond, chirps enthusiastically, “Have you ever used the Oculus/Vive/Meta?”* and “Can you see alright?”
As your virtual world comes to life, you are sometimes bordered by a grid of light (a “chaperone” or “guardian,” depending on the platform) so that you don’t walk into walls or exit the playspace. You are often given controllers, which, through your goggles, can resemble hands, paws, and even branches.
And so it begins. They call them “experiences.” Occasionally, you receive instructions, but most of the time, you just jump in. The entire experience requires a childlike sense of play to fully appreciate the offering.
“Virtual Reality” (VR) has become a blanket term used to represent the vast array of games, immersive adventures, and 360-degree movies that have recently exploded on the entertainment scene. They evoke empathy more actively, tap into memory in a whole new way, and simply leave you saying things like “crazy,” “cool,” and “awesome.”
The range of experiences is as expansive as the human imagination. Sundance has been at the forefront of the wave since 2007—the inaugural year of its New Frontiers segment. It has all of us talking (again) about the future of films. The ultimate goal of VR is what’s called “hyper-realism,” where the real and the virtual are so seamlessly blended that the user can’t tell the difference. At Sundance this year, they’re coming awfully close.
It’s easy to extrapolate how this medium could be used for real estate, education, or social justice, but much of the time, it’s just childlike-wonder fun. Once you start the journey into the world of VR, I promise you it’s hard to stop. And once you’re hooked, you can look for more newness right here in the ‘hood—at the Tribeca Film Festival in April or the nearby Samsung 837 VR hub (837 Washington Street, at 13th Street).
Covering the entire VR experience would be an overwhelming task, most notably because of the thick tech jargon; you need to invent words for things that never existed before. (Again, you learn best by jumping in.) Without inundating you with terms like “haptics” and “hololens,” I have provided a vernacular review of the 2017 Sundance VR highlights.
Chasing Coral (Jeff Orlowski) is a 360-degree mobile headset experience, which is a companion piece to the documentary by the same name. You are alternately on a boat and under the sea as you learn the story of the Earth’s deteriorating coral reserves. Much of VR is driven by socially conscious motives, and it works. There were whisperings around the VR rooms that they received a hefty donation of some kind.
Asteroids! (Eric Darnell) is a 3-D cartoon with cute space aliens, set primarily inside of their spaceship. Most of what they say is gibberish, so heralding Elizabeth Banks as the voiceover artist, did not resonate in a big way with me. You can interact with these creatures playfully. Embrace your inner silly.
Chocolate (Tyler Hurd) is a fun animated 3-D music video. If you like Hello Kitty you’re going to go nuts over this one. Adorable animated cats dance in unison while you shoot more adorable animated cats out of your VR hands. You will probably dance in very weird ways (you know…’cause you’re shooting out cats!) and you won’t care who’s watching.
Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story was created by Nonny de la Pena, one of the pioneers of VR. In this piece, he uses the actual audio recording of a young gay man named Daniel and maps you onto the experience as he comes out of the closet to his family. As the tape plays, you watch the scene evolve. It unfolds as though you are eavesdropping on a very personal moment, which blossoms into a full-blown family war. You can also move in this space. It employs a technique called “volumetric capture” which enables you to see the people and objects from all angles. This is definitely on the cutting edge of the VR medium.
Hue (Nicole McDonald, KC Austin) was described as a “softer” option within the Sundance VR fare. “What does that mean?” I wondered. It was one of the loveliest pieces of the bunch. A young boy named Hue has lost his color memory and your challenge is to help him find it. It’s incredibly immersive. You can actually pull this hand-drawn boy (with your own hands!) in different directions to help him find objects, which jog his memory. Still unclear? This one must be experienced. It’s clever, creative, sweet, and (now I get it) “softer” than the other experiences.
Mindshow (Gil Baron, Jonnie Ross, Adam Levin) is another animated experience with the added twist that you are actually creating an animated film. You use controllers to move your characters and objects with your “character hands.” You then become the other character and move the story from his/her perspective. In the end, you’ve created all your shots and you should receive the finished film via email (a neat trick to collect emails, too).
Heartcorps: Riders of the Storyboard (Dandypunk, Darin Basile, Jo Cattel) is an “old school” projection mapping theatre. There are no headsets. The 3-D space is actual 3-D space. However, it’s still technologically and physically very complicated. I can’t even describe how beautiful it is—you’ll have to view the clip, above. It’s one of the most imaginative things I’ve ever seen; they’ve even been hired by Disney and Cirque du Soleil to perform. This one involves acrobatics and humans and light and puppets and…Watch. The. Video.
Voyager (Jeffrey Travis), billed as a full-motion cinema VR chair, is basically a futuristic chair pod into which you’re strapped. Your variable experience is equipped with “haptics.” As you rocket into space, your chair emulates the movements and vibrations of a rocket ship. In my case, I went into space to find floating celebrities. (Who knew? Scarlett Johansson hangs out in space when she’s not busy walking red carpets?).
Heroes (Melissa Painter, Tim Dillon) is a two-fold experience. One is a simple 360-degree video, which introduces you to the characters—two dancers perform together in a 3-D space. The second experience is augmented reality using the Microsoft HoloLens headset. You enter a room where these same dancers, in miniature, move about the space. It is voice-activated interaction and you progress to the next scene by shouting, “And then!” You can also hold these tiny dancers in your hands and move them around. Basically, you’re God.
Zero Days (Scatter, Yasmin Elayat, Elie Zananiri) is a companion piece to the documentary film about Stuxnet. In this case, you are inside the computer virus. It’s a pretty place to be, though news clips projected on the walls remind you of the severity of the situation. The interactive part happens when a hologram of an NSA spokesperson talks to you. As the perspective spins, you see that the other hologram is your own.
Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine (Daniella Segal) is a compelling example of how VR will be applied most effectively to education. You sit with a friend, both of you in Meta2 Mixed Reality goggles, and build a beautiful holographic brain by physically assembling the parts with your hands in the space between you.
The Sky is a Gap (Rachel Rossin) takes place in an interactive room with animated objects in which you push your head through a crystal spike to move to the next “room.” It makes total sense once you do it.
Synesthesia Suit: Rez Infinite and Crystal Vibes (Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Ayahiko Sato, Kouta Minamizawa) involves two “experiences;” I tried Crystal Vibes. Basically, you watch an animated video in 3-D space while the suit triggers you with vibrating tactile sensations, which correspond to the music. Again, haptics are in play. The suit looks very future swank. However, the experience is not completely evolved.
Through You (Saschka Unseld, Lily Baldwin) is billed as a love story throughout the years. You’re in the room as a nude woman writhes sexually. Then you’re transported to the next scene in her apartment as she fights with you. A series of scenes ensue as the relationship progresses though the years and the lovers grow old together. (The actors were proportionally very large, as humans go.) This is a pure 360-degree video. You are fixed in the room and the camera moves you around the room.
Tree (Milica Zec, Winslow Porter) enables you to grow from a seed to a tree. Your arms grow branches. There are some sensory emulations involved—a breeze, the smell of sulfur from a lit match—to enhance your level of immersion. As it plays out, you understand, from the tree’s point of view, the effect of humans on nature. Before you leave, you are given a seed and invited to become part of their online tree community. Notably, Milica was the artist who created last year’s VR experience Giant. In it, a six-year-old girl tells the story of her family, which lived underground in war-torn Serbia. From all accounts, this experience brought people to tears.
*Note: “Oculus/Vive/Meta” refers to the three popular headset brands.