VR Storytelling Faces Familiar Challenges At Sundance 2021

The Sundance Film Festival has, for many years now, proved a useful means of gauging the state of VR filmmaking early on in the year. The problem is that, even after all this time, the story hasn’t changed all that much.

2021’s modest selection of VR movies — seven of the 14 total projects in this year’s New Frontier selection — do feature some experiences much longer than those seen at previous iterations of the festival. There are also a lot of new faces mixed in with the old and topics continue to wrestle with modern affairs in brave and often striking ways. But my takeaway from this year’s selection reaches an all-too-familiar conclusion; wonderous potential, genuine enthusiasm and arresting innovation are at war with budget constraints, technical proficiency and films that, frankly, don’t need to be in VR.

Everything in this year’s selection has at least some sort of spark to it, but most wrestle with at least one of those aspects. The first episode of Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster and Yasmin Elayat’s The Changing Same, for example, is a hard-hitting look at racial injustice in the US that immediately zones in on VR’s strengths. It subjects you to a first-hand account of police discrimination, driving home its depiction with one particularly sobering comparison that sees the cast of characters and their actions mirrored in slavery. But scrappy production values that make actors appear like live-action projections on top of 3D models take a toll on immersion.

On the flip side, there’s Namoo, a typically slick and wholly enjoyable piece from Baba Yaga and Invasion! studio, Baobab. The gorgeous animation and eye-opening art help enliven a whimsical short that follows an artist through the highs and lows of his life. But while visual prowess might invite comparisons between Boabab, the holy grail of modern animation that is Pixar, the cliched story beats (which themselves feel too close to one of Pixar’s most cherished works) suggest Baobab narratively still has some way to go before it earns that mantle.

Of the seven films, just one is a live-action, 360-degree piece and that’s the complete four-part series, 4 Feet High VR. It’s a challenging piece intent not so much on breaking taboos as it is hitting them at full-speed and then grinding the shattered shards into dust. Running over 35 minutes, it follows a 17-year-old wheelchair user in Argentina that explores her sexuality amidst her class’s revolt to push for sex education in school. Again, there isn’t much to it that couldn’t have been said just as well — if not better — on a flat-screen, but it does offer a fascinating snapshot into many different struggles on subjects that are easy to take for granted in some parts of the world.

I’ve written before about the considered delivery of London Film Festival Winner To Miss The Ending – a warning to humanity as it races ever-faster towards digitization. I was also smitten with Prison X Chapter 1, an interactive piece that delivered on a potent sense of place as it casts ‘players’ into a Bolivian prison. It uses convincing instances like simply taking a shower or using the prison phones to really root you in its environment and invite exploration and interaction. I wanted to see it tie together better than its first episode affords, but it was my favorite pick of this year’s bunch. You can also check out Ian’s thoughts on the live performance of Tinker right here.

Ever the eclectic collection, then, but a set that suggests VR filmmaking faces the same challenges it did in 2016, even with the advent of the Quest 2. Many of these projects deserve the kind of funding and development skillset that many VR games get, but the commercial opportunity just isn’t there to provide it. Even then, the same existential questions — questions not unique to filmmaking alone — about VR’s real strengths persist. Just as VR gaming is still too attached to its flatscreen counterpart, VR filmmaking continues to reckon with the decades of tradition that preceded it.

I’ve played enough and seen enough to remain convinced there’s a goldmine to uncover, but continue to wonder if creators are digging in the right areas. Five years into the age of consumer VR and I’ve yet to see anyone really capitalize on the narrative gut punch waiting for players at the end of Fated: A Silent Oath, and think that precious few movies have learned the right lessons from the reality-defying wonder of Dear Angelica. Those opportunities, the kind that will really set this medium apart from the others, remain unearthed at Sundance 2021, but I remain optimistic they lie in wait.

VR Storytelling Faces Familiar Challenges At Sundance 2021

The Sundance Film Festival has, for many years now, proved a useful means of gauging the state of VR filmmaking early on in the year. The problem is that, even after all this time, the story hasn’t changed all that much.

2021’s modest selection of VR movies — seven of the 14 total projects in this year’s New Frontier selection — do feature some experiences much longer than those seen at previous iterations of the festival. There are also a lot of new faces mixed in with the old and topics continue to wrestle with modern affairs in brave and often striking ways. But my takeaway from this year’s selection reaches an all-too-familiar conclusion; wonderous potential, genuine enthusiasm and arresting innovation are at war with budget constraints, technical proficiency and films that, frankly, don’t need to be in VR.

Everything in this year’s selection has at least some sort of spark to it, but most wrestle with at least one of those aspects. The first episode of Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster and Yasmin Elayat’s The Changing Same, for example, is a hard-hitting look at racial injustice in the US that immediately zones in on VR’s strengths. It subjects you to a first-hand account of police discrimination, driving home its depiction with one particularly sobering comparison that sees the cast of characters and their actions mirrored in slavery. But scrappy production values that make actors appear like live-action projections on top of 3D models take a toll on immersion.

On the flip side, there’s Namoo, a typically slick and wholly enjoyable piece from Baba Yaga and Invasion! studio, Baobab. The gorgeous animation and eye-opening art help enliven a whimsical short that follows an artist through the highs and lows of his life. But while visual prowess might invite comparisons between Boabab, the holy grail of modern animation that is Pixar, the cliched story beats (which themselves feel too close to one of Pixar’s most cherished works) suggest Baobab narratively still has some way to go before it earns that mantle.

Of the seven films, just one is a live-action, 360-degree piece and that’s the complete four-part series, 4 Feet High VR. It’s a challenging piece intent not so much on breaking taboos as it is hitting them at full-speed and then grinding the shattered shards into dust. Running over 35 minutes, it follows a 17-year-old wheelchair user in Argentina that explores her sexuality amidst her class’s revolt to push for sex education in school. Again, there isn’t much to it that couldn’t have been said just as well — if not better — on a flat-screen, but it does offer a fascinating snapshot into many different struggles on subjects that are easy to take for granted in some parts of the world.

I’ve written before about the considered delivery of London Film Festival Winner To Miss The Ending – a warning to humanity as it races ever-faster towards digitization. I was also smitten with Prison X Chapter 1, an interactive piece that delivered on a potent sense of place as it casts ‘players’ into a Bolivian prison. It uses convincing instances like simply taking a shower or using the prison phones to really root you in its environment and invite exploration and interaction. I wanted to see it tie together better than its first episode affords, but it was my favorite pick of this year’s bunch. You can also check out Ian’s thoughts on the live performance of Tinker right here.

Ever the eclectic collection, then, but a set that suggests VR filmmaking faces the same challenges it did in 2016, even with the advent of the Quest 2. Many of these projects deserve the kind of funding and development skillset that many VR games get, but the commercial opportunity just isn’t there to provide it. Even then, the same existential questions — questions not unique to filmmaking alone — about VR’s real strengths persist. Just as VR gaming is still too attached to its flatscreen counterpart, VR filmmaking continues to reckon with the decades of tradition that preceded it.

I’ve played enough and seen enough to remain convinced there’s a goldmine to uncover, but continue to wonder if creators are digging in the right areas. Five years into the age of consumer VR and I’ve yet to see anyone really capitalize on the narrative gut punch waiting for players at the end of Fated: A Silent Oath, and think that precious few movies have learned the right lessons from the reality-defying wonder of Dear Angelica. Those opportunities, the kind that will really set this medium apart from the others, remain unearthed at Sundance 2021, but I remain optimistic they lie in wait.

We Want More VR Previews At Home Like Sundance’s Tinker On Oculus Quest

A new social VR story called Tinker premiered at the Sundance Film Festival running natively on Oculus Quest.

The experimental piece features a live performer embodying a grandfather with a participant invited to play along as their grandchild. Others can watch the story play out as silent observers free to move around the room. Its execution is similar to The Tempest from The Under Presents, which invites players to be part of the show run by a single performer.

The story plays with scale as only VR allows, shrinking the player down to the size of a baby as grandpa brings them toys and endeavors to make memories with them. The child grows over a series of vignettes — first flying a plane grandpa handed over in the crib, and then as a larger child drawing a picture on a whiteboard, and operating a remote-controlled car. Eventually, as an adult, you help grandpa find his medicine in the room.

Grandpa becomes forgetful, you see, unable to recall some of the road trips the two of you went on together, and by the end of the story he’s unable even to interact with the simple answering machine he has in his workshop. Yet still, he cares about the memories you made together and wants you to know that.

This is a surprisingly upbeat and even therapeutic take on a very painful subject for many, with the performer conveying through their dialogue a sense of importance to each memory-making moment. You draw on the whiteboard, for example, and then grandpa makes the effort to document it by taking a Polaroid and explains that he is writing down the date on the back of the picture so the memory can be more easily recalled. Dear Angelica took a more abstract approach to tell a pained story of a child and parent, whereas in Tinker you’re in an actual room with objects to pick up in the area. So the activities you and grandpa do together, combined with the personal touch of a live actor guiding a child, makes it easy to roleplay as a little one while reflecting on your own upbringing and the bittersweet sting of revisiting those moments.

The pace of the piece was thrown off by some bugs you would expect from an in-development piece of software. Dropping objects on the floor, for example, that should be easily handed from one person to another is a pretty quick way to distract from a narrative. Tinker is a very interesting piece, though, with an interactive live structure and scheduled performances distributed as a preview directly to headsets at home on Facebook’s evolving VR platform. That’s both an extraordinary challenge and something we want to see become more commonplace. You shouldn’t have to drive to Salt Lake City Utah to see something like this in a VR headset, and it is quite the relief to be able to do so from the comfort (and safety) of your own home. So we hope to see Tinker polished and released more broadly in some form, and that others see this type of work, and its home preview, as the model for future VR project premieres.

Tinker premiered as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program. While most of New Frontier is presented in a WebXR-enabled social platform, Tinker is distributed separately through Facebook’s Oculus and carries a hefty download size. Tickets are also hard to come by with limited spots available for the performances.

Baobab Studios’ Next Project Is Namoo, Premiering At Sundance

Baobab Studios have announced its next project, Namoo, an immersive animated film for VR directed by award-winning filmmaker Erick Oh.

Namoo (the Korean word for ‘tree’) is described as a ‘narrative poem come to life as an immersive animated film, and is inspired by the life of Oh’s grandfather. Centered around one tree, Namoo “follows the meaningful moments of one man’s life,” where “the tree starts as a seed and eventually grows into a fully-mature tree, collecting meaningful objects that represent positive and painful memories in its branches.”

You can view the announcement trailer below, giving us an early look at the stunning animation style.

Naboo was created with Quill, the VR animation tool available for PC VR. As you can see from the trailer, that gives it a very distinct visual style similar to many other Quill animations we’ve seen before, but with a bit of Baobab polish added on top.

Erick Oh is a Korean filmmaker based in California, and has worked across many different animation mediums. His work has been presented and awarded at various festivals and award ceremonies. Previously, Oh worked as an animator at Pixar on films like Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out. He has a plethora of awards and lots of experience to his name, which you can view over on his website.

Naboo will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which is currently running until February 3rd. As with other Baobab titles that debuted at film festivals, it’s likely that Naboo will see a wider release onto VR headsets sometime in the future.

Sundance Film Festival 2020 Begins This Week, Featuring Several VR Experiences

The annual Sundance Film Festival begins this week on the 23rd of January and will feature a variety of VR and AR experiences, as part of the festival’s ‘New Frontier’ lineup. The festival runs for just over a week at Park City in Utah, through to the 2nd of February.

All of the VR and AR content will be available at Sundance’s two ‘New Frontier’ venues, the New Frontier at the Ray and New Frontier Central. Both locations will host a ‘VR Cinema’ and panel discussions, with New Frontier Central also including the ‘Biodigital Theatre’ that is described as “a cutting-edge presentation space that will feature a rotating schedule of large scale VR theatrical works including a feature-length livestream game telecast.”

Looking at the New Frontier program, there’s a mixture of experimental VR experiences, some of which sound quite bizarre, out there and appropriately arty. Hypha, for example, is an “immersive virtual reality journey to heal the Earth-by becoming a mushroom.” Intriguing! There are also some social VR experiences available, such as Metamorphic, and some mixed reality experiences, such as Solastalgia, which is an installation “set in a mysterious future exploring the surface of a planet that has become uninhabitable.”

There’s also some rumblings, according to CNET, that Disney’s Frozen VR short, Myth: A Frozen Tale, might also be available to view at Sundance as well, but there’s no mention of it on the program as it stands.

Film festivals have been an interesting new frontier for VR. The intimate social experience Where Thoughts Go, which is now available on Quest, premiered at the Tribecca Film Festival in 2018. We also checked out the VR offerings at the Raindance Film Festival late last year in the first episode of The VR Culture Show.

You can view Sundance’s full New Frontier lineup on the Sundance Institute site.

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Oculus Quest Experience ‘The Under Presents’ Debuts at Sundance 2019

Oculus today announced that it’s bringing two VR experiences to this year’s Sundance Film Festival— the previously announced Traveling While Black for Oculus Go & Rift, and the newly unveiled The Under Presents for Oculus Quest.

The Under Presents

immersive theater and VR, allowing you to interact with characters and other participants within the experience’s magical ship called ‘The Under’.

Oculus says in a blog post that in ‘The Under,’ the user enters a vaudeville stage that exists in a “special dimension outside time and space, where you are guided by a mysterious proprietor. ‘The Under’ operates on a loop with different live and recorded acts coming and going — and the main act ‘The Aickman’ is the story within the story.”

“There is a lot of interest in exploring the overlap of immersive theater and VR,” says Samantha Gorman, co-founder of Tender Claws. “The project’s narrative revolves around fate and free will and as part of that we’re interested in playing with the change of feeling of interacting with both pre-recorded and live characters. As well as other players and past recorded versions of themselves.”

The experience is said to arrive on Oculus Quest “later this year.”

Traveling While Black

Oculus also debuted Traveling While Blacka VR documentary film that centers on the history of restricted movement for Black Americans.

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams and co-directed with Ayesha Nadarajah and Emmy-Award winning directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël (Felix & Paul), the project was created in collaboration with The New York Times Op-Docs.

“It started as a need to talk about this forgotten period,” Williams says in the Oculus blog post. “It’s about connecting the past to the present and explaining to people that we, as Black people in America, are at risk every time we step out the front door. There’s a history that makes you anxious and tense because you carry it with you everywhere you go.”

“I hope Traveling While Black sparks a conversation that inspires real solutions and awareness,” Williams added. “If this film asks the right questions and gets people to think about this ongoing crisis in America — not avoid or gloss over it, just to have a profound discussion about race in America instead of looking the other way — then we’ve succeeded.”

Traveling While Black is available today on Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, and on the NYT Op-Docs page.

Sundance 2019 will be taking place from January 24th – February 3rd in Park City, Utah.

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Whispers In The Night Is A Groundbreaking AI Experience From Fable

Whispers In The Night Is A Groundbreaking AI Experience From Fable

Fable is a content creation studio founded by Edward Saatchi and other alumni from Oculus Story Studio. After working on projects like Henry and Dear Angelica, then moving on to Fable and working on Wolves in the Walls, Saatchi was satisfied with the revelation that VR is already being taken seriously as an art form through various awards and other recognition.

Now, it’s time for the “next great art form”: artificial intelligence. Fable’s debut effort on that front will be an “AI Experience” according to Saatchi dubbed Whispers in the Night.

Coinciding with this announcement Fable is also pivoting the entire company to focus on storytelling with virtual beings. According to Fable, a virtual being is defined as, “an AI-powered character with whom you can build a two-way relationship” or in other words an extremely smart and powerful AI that’s personified in a digital space that you can interact with. To showcase this new form of storytelling, Whispers in the Night Saatchi described to me as “living” inside of a VR experience in which you have a conversation with a small girl named Lucy and share secrets with her.

One of the most striking things about Wolves in the Walls, Fable’s last project, that stood out to me the most was just how emotive the little girl’s eyes were when she spoke with me. She was reactive to me and what I did in ways that few VR NPCs have been and now they seem to have taken that feeling and ran with it. Anyone that has tried a VR experience in which the characters seem aware of you and respond to your interactions can attest to just how amazing it feels. It’s unlike anything you’ll have experienced before.

Specifically, according to a press release from Fable:

“Whispers in the Night transports you into a memory where you and 8-year old Lucy share an emotionally connected moment through a conversation. It is part of a collection of interwoven chapters. Audiences will discover and grow alongside Lucy as she shares her deepest thoughts and imaginations, completely unique to their personal exchange. What will you say? What will Lucy remember? When does a moment become a memory?”

The most intriguing part about Whispers in the Night to me is the notion that Lucy will actually remember things you tell her for future encounters. Using Natural Language Processing she will be able to understand you and respond realistically, as well as track your movement and offer you objects inside the digital world. Then what you do and say in Whispers in the Night will actually carry over into Wolves in the Walls since she is the same little girl. If that actually works as described, that’s pretty amazing.

The first chapter of Wolves in the Walls is what we saw last year and now the second chapter is finally releasing this week at Sundance as well. This new snippet contains an entire Quill animation inside. And finally, Fable is announcing the first ever conference dedicated entirely to immersive AI interactions called The Virtual Beings Conference. It will be held this summer in San Francisco, CA — exact dates and location to be determined.

Fable cites other AI experiences and companies as inspiration and peers such as Mica from Magic Leap, Artie, and Lil Miquela among others.

Whispers in the Night is being officially announced today by Fable to coincide with Sundance but it won’t be available for people to try first-hand until the debut Virtual Beings Conference in San Francisco later this summer. For more details on the Virtual Beings Conference, you can check out the official website here.

Let us know what you think down in the comments below!

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Eminem, Volumetric VR And More Lead Sundance’s 2019 New Frontier Line-Up

Eminem, Volumetric VR And More Lead Sundance’s 2019 New Frontier Line-Up

Over the past few years the annual Sundance Film Festival has become a staple event in the VR calendar, showcasing the latest efforts in VR filmmaking via its New Frontier line-up. The 2019 edition of the festival is coming up, and it’s set to offer the biggest slate of immersive experiences yet.

33 projects have been selected for this year’s show ranging from short VR films to experimental AR projects and beyond. Highlighting the VR side are two new projects from Felix & Paul Studios, best known for its 360-degree content that put former President Barack Obama in VR and more.

The first is Marshall From Detroit, which stars none other than Eminem himself. The 3D, 360-degree movie joins the rap icon on a journey through Detroit at night as he shares his own personal thoughts about the city. It’s not the first time Eminem has dabbled with immersive tech; he integrated AR into his concert experience earlier this year too.

Next up is Traveling While Black, directed by Life, Animated’s Roger Ross Williams. It tackles the subject of restricted movement across the US for black Americans and details the rise of safe spaces within communities. Both films are around 20 minutes in length and have been produced in collaboration with Oculus, so we’d expect them to show up on headsets like the Rift and Go later down the line.

As for the rest of the festival, there’s a new volumetric VR photobooth that gives attendees the chance to be digitized as seen in recent works like Awake: Episode One and Blade Runner: Memory Lab. Sundance says that, of these entries, nearly 50% “are directed or led by one or more women, 39% were directed or led by one or more artist of color, and 9% by one or more people who identify as LGBTQIA.”

The full list of films is below, expect a program to appear later this month.

Films and Performances

(antiquated) Augmented Reality / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Christine Marie, Producer: Nion McEvoy) — Visual intimacy, ontological form, in real-time. Pioneering the use of a non-digital, reinvented, pre-cinematic stereo imaging technique, the exquisite ensemble of dancers seems to do the impossible — reach out. The vivid choreography and score leave a lasting impression within one’s psyche created by giant, stunning, “liberated” 3D shadows. Cast: Taylor Unwin, Sandra Ruiz, Melissa Ferrari.

Aquarela / United Kingdom, Germany (Director: Victor Kossakovsky, Screenwriters: Victor Kossakovsky, Aimara Reques, Producers: Aimara Reques, Heino Deckert, Sigrid Dyekjær) — A cinematic journey through the transformative beauty and raw power of water.

The (ART) oF BE(i)NG / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: JB Ghuman, Jr., Producer: JB Ghuman, Jr.) — A visual-sonic journey meant to expand one’s consciousness and emotional capacity through hand-crafted art and multi-dimensional storytelling. Cast: Maraqueen Reznor, Jake Shears, iRAWniQ, JB Ghuman Jr., Mayhem Miller, Hillary Tuck.

TAKING THE HORSE TO EAT JALEBIS / India (Director: Anamika Haksar, Screenwriters: Anamika Haksar, Lokesh Jain, Producer: Anamika Haksar) — The waft of kebabs blends with the memories of an Indo-Islamic culture, fusing and playing with the dreams and subconscious landscapes of a modern migrant community laboring hard with dignity and humor. Fusing documentary-realism with magic-realism, and true and fictionalized stories with poetry and dreams.Cast: Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav, Gopalan, Lokesh Jain.

Two Black Lights and One Red / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Victor Morales, Billy Burns, Jason Batcheller, Key Collaborators: Kevin Cunningham, Skye Morse-Hodgson, Andreea Mincic, Yasmin Santana, Marcelo Añez) — Presented on a 3-D immersive interactive projection stage, this biodigital play is set in a visually charged universe of decadence inspired by Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos paintings. Featuring live actors and digital avatars, the story is about the last day of a blind poet, Max Starpower. Cast: Christine Schisano, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Nikki Calonge.

Walden / Switzerland (Director and screenwriter: Daniel Zimmermann, Producer: Aline Schmid) — A fir tree in an Austrian forest is felled and processed into wooden slats, which are then transported by train, boat and truck into the Brazilian rainforest. With powerful 360°-sequence shots, the film portrays a paradoxical journey along globalized trade routes.

Exhibitions

analmosh / U.S.A. (Lead Artist: Matt Romein, Key Collaborators: Oren Shoham, Kevin Cunningham, Jason Batcheller, Skye Morse-Hodgson)— An explosive wash of color and sound bathes audiences in this generative audio visual installation. Dynamic abstract imagery accompanies sample based audio that is programmatically distorted and remixed to match the visuals. Iterative coding allows each instance of the installation to produce unique landscapes while maintaining a cohesive structure.

Belle of the Ball / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Ro Haber, Silas Howard, Pussykrew, Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Key Collaborators: Renaldo Maurice, Kya Azeen Mizrahi, Rouge, Saschka Unseld, Jennifer Tiexiera, Jenna Velez) — A VR journey into a futuristic reimagined utopia of queer + trans family and dance made in collaboration with members of New York’s ballroom scene. Cast: Renaldo Maurice Tisci, Kya Azeen Mizrahi, Rouge, Jack Mizrahi, Sinia Reed, Jonovia Chase.

THE DIAL / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Peter Flaherty, Jesse Garrison, Trey Gilmore, Key Collaborators: Jake Sally, Sal Mannino, Ela Topcuoglu, Julia Bembenek, Brian Chasalow) — A woman smashes through the stone wall outside her family home. This visual tale unravels the formerly wealthy family’s emotional underbelly and what happened that fateful night, as seen from shifting perspectives. An interactive narrative combining Augmented Reality and Projection Mapping where you control time by moving your body. Cast: Michael Gladis, Beth Grant, Jackie Hansen, Charlie McWade.

Dirtscraper / U.S.A. (Lead Artist: Peter Burr, Key Collaborators: John Also Bennett, Mark Fingerhut, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Eric Timothy Carlson, Brandon Blommaert) — An installation simulating an underground structure whose “smart architecture” is overseen by artificial intelligences. Unaware of these entities’ control, residents live in ways that that reflect varied economies and class hierarchies. Periodically, this system will interject one of 48 cinematic interludes revealing different facets of life in this decaying arcology.

Embody / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Melissa Painter, Thomas Wester, Siân Slawson, Key Collaborators: Joey Verbeke, Jordan Goldfarb, Ben Purdy, Peter Rubin, Eric Adrian Marshall) — Piloted by movement and whole body engagement and dialogue, this shared game of trading and transforming avatars aims to leave players with a deep feeling of physical embodiment, and surprise at their bodies’ forgotten potential.

Emergence / United Kingdom (Lead Artist: Matt Pyke, Key Collaborators: Chris Mullany, Simon Pyke, Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin) — Enter an open-world environment, expressing the primal desire to maintain your individual identity whilst being part of a crowd. Showing 5,000+ intelligent human behaviors, this powerful VR experience is made possible by advanced graphics technology.

Esperpento / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Victor Morales, Jason Batcheller, Key Collaborators: Kevin Cunningham, Skye Morse-Hodgson) — Inspired by Spanish painter Francisco Goya, a large-scale, interactive projection platform featuring immersive installations, creative studio, digital puppet-karaoke lounge, and periodic stagings of the play Two Black Lights and One Red (the story of blind poet Max Starpower’s last day, told by live actors and digital avatars.

Gloomy Eyes / France, Argentina (Lead Artists: Jorge Tereso, Fernando Maldonado, Key Collaborators: Antoine Cayrol, German Heller, Santiago Amigorena) — 1983, Woodland City. Being a zombie is against the law. Like all of his kind, young Gloomy is hiding in the forest, away from bounty hunters. But Gloomy is different. While bitterness plagues the city, he strives to find a balance in his mysterious dual nature.

Grisaille / U.S.A. (Lead Artist: Teek Mach, Key Collaborator: Joel Douek, Andrew Sales) — In 2016, a young artist traded her paintbrushes for a headset and began inhabiting virtual reality more than the real world. In this VR installation, join her in a recursive exploration of the infinite self. When your body leaves the experience, your presence lives inside her ever-expanding virtual painting.

Interlooped / Switzerland (Lead Artists: Maria Guta, Robin Mange, Javier Bello Ruiz, FlexFab, Key Collaborators: Benoît Perrin, Joël Comminot, Charlotte Gubler) — What happens when you step in a room that slowly fills up with different versions of the same person? What happens when you get surrounded by different versions of yourself? What happens when you are in a loop of your most recent reality? Sounds confusing? You reached the right place. Cast: Maria Guta.

A Jester’s Tale / U.S.A., Pakistan (Lead Artist: Asad J. Malik, Key Collaborators: Jake Sally, Jack Daniel Gerrard, Mariana Irazu, Ela Topcuoglu, Philipp Schaeffer) — Experience the viscerality of a psychologically taxing children’s fable merging with the physicality of our world as you come home cold and tired, just in time for a bedtime story. In this interactive augmented reality narrative the characters are just hollow meshes, but maybe so are you. Cast: Aiden Torres, Jovanna Vidal, Phoebe VanDusen.

Mechanical Souls / France, Taiwan (Lead Artists: Gaëlle Mourre, L.P. Lee, Key Collaborators: Francois Klein
Thomas Villepoux, Estela Valdivieso Chen) — Despite the cost, Mrs. Song hires androids to assist in the lavish wedding of her daughter, Zhen-Zhen. But when she tries to modify the behavior of the android bridesmaid, a new model named Ah-Hui, its functioning begins to go haywire. Cast: Janet Hsieh, George Young, Patty Lee, Ann Lang, Sharon Landon .

Mica / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: John Monos, Alice Wroe) — I am Mica, the human center of AI and mixed reality. In a gestural exchange, I contemplate my place in your world. Be my collaborator; let’s champion genius and celebrate creativity. Join me at the beginning of my existence, to pull from the past and create the future.

REACH / U.S.A.(Lead Artists: Nonny de la Peña, Chaitanya Shah, Hannah Eaves, Cedric Gamelin, Key Collaborators: James Pallot, Sandra Persing, Charles Park, Roshail Tarar) — A next-generation VR photobooth allowing attendees to step inside the story. Users can be captured in dimensionalized video, placed into one of several “walk around” environments and automatically create a volumetric VR experience that can be viewed on any device and shared online.

Runnin’ / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Reggie Watts, Kiira Benzing, Key Collaborators: John Tejada, Amy O’Neal, Ani Taj, Adam Rogers) — This interactive dance experience takes the player on a journey of musical expression. Play along with the music in an intimate neighborhood record store and be transported to a retro-future dance party. Show off your moves on the dance floor alongside a troupe of dancers. Cast: Reggie Watts, John Tejada, Amy O’Neal, Ani Taj, Kate Berlant, Ben Schwartz.

The Seven Ages of Man / United Kingdom (Lead Artists: Royal Shakespeare Company, Magic Leap, Key Collaborators: Jessica Curry, Gregory Doran [Royal Shakespeare Company],Andy Lanning, John Monos [Magic Leap]) — The Royal Shakespeare Company explores theatre’s future with Magic Leap technology in this sublime production of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This mixed reality experience featuring cutting-edge volumetric capture and an original musical score, turns the line “all the world’s a stage” literal. Cast: Robert Gilbert.

Sweet Dreams / United Kingdom (Lead Artists: Robin McNicholas, Ersin Han Ersin, Barnaby Steel, Nell Whitley, Key Collaborator: Simon Wroe) — An invitation to the meal of your dreams. But will it remain a dream, forever out of reach? Drawing on mythological archetypes, the project turns a fine dining experience into a playful exploration of the destructive nature of our appetite and our debt to pleasure.

Traveling While Black / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Roger Ross Williams, Félix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphaël, Ayesha Nadarajah, Key Collaborators: Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, Stéphane Rituit, Ryan Horrigan) — Confronting the way we understand and talk about race in America, this virtual reality documentary immerses the viewer in the long history of restriction of movement for black Americans and the creation of safe spaces in our communities. Cast: Sandra Butler-Truesdale, Virginia Ali, Courtland Cox, Samaria Rice. 

VR Cinema

4 Feet: Blind Date / Argentina (Lead Artists: Maria Belen Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damian Turkieh, Ezequiel Lenardon, Key Collaborators: Guillermo Mena, Florencia Cossutta, Gonzalo Sierra, Martin Lopez Funes, Marcos Rostagno, Santiago Beltramo) — Juana, an 18-year-old girl in a wheelchair, is anxious to explore her sexuality. She’s going on a blind date with guy she found on social media. She didn’t tell him about her disability. Overcoming fears and an inaccessible city, they meet. Together they discover what their bodies feel. Cast: Delfina Diaz Gavier, Cristobal Lopez Baena, Elisa Gagliano, Candelaria Tapia, Irene Gonet.

Ashe ’68 / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Brad Lichtenstein, Beth Hubbard, Jeff Fitzsimmons, Rex Miller, Key Collaborators: John Legend, Mike Jackson, Masha Vasilkovsky, Ruah Edelstein, Madeline Power, Vernon Reid) — Fifty years before Colin Kaepernick there was Arthur Ashe. This VR experience immerses you in the tennis champion’s defining moment in 1968 as he becomes the first black man to win the US Open and uses his newfound celebrity to lift his voice against injustice. Cast: Chris Eubanks, Michael Cleary, Peter Begley, Andrew Panter, Alex LaCroix.

Ghost Fleet VR / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Lucas Gath, Shannon Service) —An immersive look at the true story of modern slavery in the Thai fishing industry, told through the experience of one man’s harrowing ordeal to escape a prison of water after 10 years at sea. Cast: Tun Lin, Vithaya Pansringarm.

Kaiju Confidential / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Thomas O’Donnell, Ethan Shaftel, Piotr Karwas, Raul Dominguez, Key Collaborators: Eric Rosenthal, Corey Campodonico, Alex Bulkley, Matt Jenkins, Monica Mitchell, Ryan Franks) — Grigon’s not the toughest beast on the block, but he’s certainly the most neurotic. When he discovers the legendary Mega-Hydra rampaging on his turf, it becomes a stand-off of passive-aggressive proportions. Cast: Blake Anderson, Paul F. Tompkins .

Last Whispers: An Immersive Oratorio / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Lena Herzog, Jonathan Yomayuza, Meghan McWilliams, Laura Dubuk, Key Collaborators: Nonny de la Peña, Mark Mangini, Amanda Tasse, Cedric Gamelin, Marilyn Simons, Mandana Seyfeddinipur) — At an unprecedented speed faster than the extinction of most endangered species, we are losing our linguistic diversity—and the very means by which we know ourselves. This immersive oratorio is an invocation of the languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered.

Live Stream from Yuki <3 / Taiwan (Lead Artist: Tsung-Han Tsai, Key Collaborators: Meng-Yin Yang, Inch Lin, Pu-Yuan Cheng) — Yuki live streams her love life as usual to a group of supportive netizens, though an uninvited guest crashes the party and strips her of her disguise. Can you see what is real and what is fallacious? Cast: Jia-Yin Tsai.

Marshall from Detroit / U.S.A. (Lead Artists: Caleb Slain, Felix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphael, Key Collaborators: Stephane Rituit, Ryan Horrigan, Paul Rosenberg, Eric Hahn) — Growing up, Marshall Mathers dreamed of rapping his way out of Detroit. Years and fortunes later, he still hasn’t left. Join him on a night ride through his hometown, where the mirrored struggles of Eminem and the Motor City speak to the heart of what we call home.

RocketMan 360 / Romania (Lead Artists: Millo Simulov, Gabriela Hirit, Key Collaborators: Filip Columbeanu, Andreea Serpe, Gabi Ranete) —A few minutes before taking off to Mars on a dangerous, noble mission to colonize the planet, an astronaut receives a 360 video from his girlfriend. Cast: Monica Odagiu, Anghel Damian.

The Tide: Episodes 1 & 2 / South Korea (Lead Artists: Taekyung Yoo, Sanghyoun Lee, Key Collaborator: Seok Cho) — Something strange is coming. Can we survive? One day, previously-unknown giant fish begin to appear among humans, who are escalating into conflict amid the worst drought ever. A disaster thriller about a new survival battle: human vs fish. Cast: Robert Joe, Lorne Oliver, Tracey Starck, John Michaels, Kristen Cho.

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The post Eminem, Volumetric VR And More Lead Sundance’s 2019 New Frontier Line-Up appeared first on UploadVR.

The Yang and the Yin of Immersive Storytelling with Oculus’ Yelena Rachitsky

yelena-rachitskyThe future of VR storytelling will be immersive and interactive. Yelena Rachitsky is an executive producer of experiences at Oculus, and she’s been inspired by how interactive narratives have allowed her to feel like a participant who is more engaged, more present, and more alive. The fundamental challenge of interactive narratives is how to balance the giving and receiving of making choices and taking action vs. receiving a narrative and being emotionally engaged and having an embodied experience of immersion and presence. Balancing the active and passive dimensions is the underlying tension of the yang and yin of any experience.

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The boundaries between what is a game and what is an immersive story will continue to be blurred, but Rachitsky looks at the center of gravity of an experience. Are you centered in your embodied experience and emotional engagement of a story (yin)? Or are you centered in your head of thinking about the strategy of your next action in achieving a goal in a game (yang)?

She’s recommends that experiential designers start with more yin aspects of an experience including the feeling, the colors, the space, and the visceral sensory experience of a story that you’re primarily telling directly to someone’s body. She’s also been finding a lot of inspiration and innovation of the future of storytelling from immersive theater, where actors are able to use their body language to communicate unconsciously with the audience and use their bodies moving through space in order to drive specific behaviors. The Oculus-produced Wolves in the Walls used immersive theater actors from the production Then She Fell in order to do the motion capture, and to help tell the spatial story using the body language of an embodied character in the story.

I had a chance to catch up with Rachitsky at Sundance this year where Oculus had five different experiences including Dispatch, Masters of the Sun, Space Explorers, Spheres, & Wolves in the Walls. Rachitsky has been key in helping to discover immersive storytellers and supporting projects that push the edge of innovation when it comes to the future of interactive storytelling. She says that the biggest open question that is driving her journey into immersive storytelling is “How can you be passive and active at the same time?”

Rachitsky says that immersive storytelling isn’t about the beginning, middle, or end, but rather it is about cultivating an experience that you have, and it’s about the story that you tell yourself after you take the headset off. This matches some of the depth psychological perspectives on immersive storytelling that John Bucher shared in his Storytelling for Virtual Reality book where VR storytelling could be used as a technological as a vehicle for inner reflection and contemplation.

I suspect that the focus on embodiment and the audience’s direct experience is part of a larger trend towards a new forms of storytelling that transcend the Yang Archetypal journey of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and VR and AR are more about a more receptive Yin Archetypal Journey that I would say is more non-linear, cyclical, embodied, sensory, centered in your own experience, environmental, nurturing, receptive, cooperative, community-driven, worldbuilding, depth psychological, connective, transcendent, esoteric, & alchemical.

The exact patterns and underlying structures of this more yin archetypal journey are still be explored in VR stories, but there’s likely a lot of inspiration that might come from kishōtenketsu literary structures found in classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives that focus more on conflict-free stories of cooperation, collaboration, and revealing holistic interconnections of how the totality is greater than the sum of all of the individual parts.

I’ve recorded nearly 100 interviews on the future of immersive storytelling now (here’s a list of the Top 50 from 2016), and a consistent theme has been this underlying tension of giving and receiving where there is a striving for a balance of the active and passive experience. I find that the concepts of the yang and the yin from Chinese philosophy and the four elements from natural philosophy provide compelling metaphors to talk about this underlying tension.

Using metaphors from natural philosophy, the fire element (active presence) and air element (mental & social presence) are yang expressions of exerting energy outward while the water element (emotional presence) and earth element (embodied & environmental presence) are more yin expressions of receiving energy internally. My keynote on from the Immersive technology Conference elaborates on how these play out in the more yang communications mediums like videos games and more yin communications mediums of film and VR.

Video games focus on outward yang expressions of making choices and taking action while film focuses on inward yin expressions of receiving an emotionally engaging story. VR introduces the body and direct embodied sensory experience, but it’s possible that this focus on embodiment and presence helps to create new expressions of yin archetypal stories that have otherwise been impossible to tell.

Most of my recent conversations about VR storytelling from Sundance 2018 & the Immersive Design Summit have been focused on this emerging yin archetypal journey of how embodiment & presence are revealing these new structures of immersive storytelling:

The concept of a “Living Story‘” from the Future of Storytelling’s Charlie Melcher is very similar to what The VOID’s Camille Cellucci calls “Story-Living,” which is about “creating spaces and worlds where people have a chance to live out their own stories within a framework that we design.” The recently released Ready Player One movie did not include some of the ‘story-living’ live action role playing scenes that were included within the novel, but Ernest Cline was definitely attuned to the trends towards immersive narratives when his novel came out in 2011, which is the year that the Punchdrunk immersive theater production Sleep No More opened up in New York City.

Whether it’s a living story or story-living, both involve becoming an active participant and character within the story that’s unfolding. AI is going to play a huge role in helping to resolve some of this tension between authorial control of the story and creating generative possibility spaces, and it’s something that I’m starting to explore in the Voices of AI podcast with interviews with AI storytelling pioneer Michael Mateas, AI social simulator designer & improv actor Ben Samuel, and AI researcher/indie game developer Kristin Siu. Oculus’ Rachitsky is looking forward to integrating more and more AI technologies within future VR storytelling experiences, and she’s even experimenting with using live actors randomly appearing within some future VR experiences that she’s working on.

I expect that the underlying tension between giving and receiving, active and passive, and the yang and the yin to continue to be explored through a variety of different immersive storytelling experiences. While Ready Player One explores a typical Yang Archetypal Journey in the style of Campbell’s monomyth, these types of active gaming and mental puzzle-solving experiences may look great on a film screen, but they’re not always compelling VR experiences that amplify the unique affordances of immersion and presence in VR.

I predict that immersive storytellers will continue to define and explore new storytelling structures that I expect will initially be focusing these more Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. There will continue to be a fusion of traditional storytelling techniques from cinema, but it’s possible that VR stories need to completely detach from the paradigms of storytelling that tend to focus on conflict, drama, and outward journeys.

It’s possible that the Kishōtenketsu story structures from Eastern cultures might work well in VR as they focus on more cooperative and conflict-free stories that focus on the Gestalt of interconnectivity. It’s also likely that if there does turn out to be a fundamental Yin Archetypal Journey structure that’s different than the Campbell’s monomyth that it’s likely that these stories have been ignored and overlooked, and that it’s possible that the mediums of VR and AR have been needed in order to provide people with an embodied, direct experience of these types of stories.

Eventually we’ll be able to find a perfect balance of the yang and the yin in immersive stories, but perhaps before we get this perfect balance then we’ll need focus on these Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. Once we open our minds about what the optimal structures for embodied stories that center us in our experiences, then I expect more of a seamless integration of live-action role play, gaming elements, social interactions, and collaborative stories.


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Grabbing Virtual Objects with the HaptX Glove (Formerly AxonVR)

Jake-Rubin
Jake Rubin

The HaptX Glove that was shown at Sundance was one of the most convincing haptics experiences that I’ve had in VR. While it was still primitive, I was able to grab a virtual object in VR, and for the first time have enough haptic feedback to convince my brain that I was actually grabbing something. Their glove uses a combination of exoskeletal force feedback with their patented microfluidic technology, and they’ve significantly reduced the size of their external box driving the experience from the demo that I saw at GDC (back when they were named AxonVR) thanks to a number of technological upgrades and ditching the temperature feedback.

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joe-michaels
Joe Michaels

I had a chance to talk with CEO & co-founder Jake Rubin and Chief Revenue Officer Joe Michaels at Sundance where we talked about why enterprise & military training customers are really excited about this technology, some of the potential haptics-inspired interactive storytelling possibilities, how they’re refining the haptics resolution fidelity distribution that will provide the optimal experience, and their collaboration with SynTouch’s texture-data models in striving towards creating a haptic display technology that can simulate a wide ranges of textures.

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Hands-on: HaptX Glove Delivers Impressively Detailed Micro-pneumatic Haptics, Force Feedback

HaptX was using a Vive tracker puck for arm orientation, but they had to develop customized magnetic tracking to get the level of precision required to simulate individual finger movements, and one side effect is that their technology could start to be used as an input device. Some of HaptX’s microfludic technologies combined with a new air valve that is 1000x more precise could also start to create unique haptics technologies that could have some really interesting applications for sensory replacement or sensory substitution or start to be used in assisting data visualizations in a similar way that sound enhances spatialization through a process called sonification.

Photo by Road to VR

Overall, HaptX is making rapid progress and huge leaps with their haptics technologies and they’ve crossed a threshold for becoming useful enough for a number of different enterprise and military training applications. Rubin isn’t convinced that VR haptics will ever be able to fully trick the brain in a way that’s totally indistinguishable from reality, but they’re getting to the point where it’s good enough to start to be used creatively in training and narrative experiences. Perhaps soon we’ll be seeing some of HaptX’s technology in location-based entertainment applications created by storytellers who got to experience their technology at Sundance this year, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how their textures haptic display evolves over the next year.


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