2016 has seen VR become a legitimate part of film festivals over the world (Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, and many more to come). Cannes, the temple of cinema, is still the world's largest and most respected festival when it comes to traditional filmmaking. On its 69th anniversary, a wind of change has - finally - started to blow over the French Riviera, confirming the rapid rise of the cinematic virtual reality scene.
The Marché du Film's NEXT section, which aims to explore innovation in film, hosted a week-long program featuring a rich selection of cinematic virtual reality, a couple of room-scale installations, a few game demos based on Hollywood franchises, and talks exploring the challenges of VR storytelling, funding, production and distribution.
The bustling NEXT village became the go-to spot for a growing international community of producers, filmmakers, distributors and festival curators, eager to discover how virtul reality is shaping the future of film.
After watching as many VR films as possible, we've rounded up our take of the best experiences of the festival. Many of these films and games will be available later this year, so you should definitely check them out on your Gear VR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Best VR interactive short: S.E.N.S. VR
Based on French author Marc-Antoine Mathieu's eponymous graphic novel, S.E.N.S. VR is an exploratory point-and-move journey into a monochrome maze world in which you follow arrows to find the path to your destiny.
Your freedom to wander might seem game-like, but the experience is more about letting go, as the rules governing space and time in this barren world keep changing, morphing familiar landscapes into a mind-bending labyrinth. Shown here on a Gear VR, S.E.N.S. would really benefit from going room-scale, to become the first walkable comic book experience.
Gear VR, Oculus Rift (next), HTC Vive (later in 2016)
Best live action short: EWA
Arthouse films are coming to VR. Produced by Danish studio Makropol, EWA is an eight minute pilot of a feature-length project in the works, a first person live action narrative piece that manages to stay truthful to the Danish school of film while opening new perspectives for storytelling in VR.
Deliberately restricted to 180 degrees, EWA puts you inside the body of Ewa, a young girl who grows up and fights to stay free as a woman. At times claustrophobic, EWA pulls the viewer into the experience of being trapped inside your own body. While taking away the freedom to glance around, this cleverly directed short pushes immersive film in the right direction, making the case for strong directorial choices in the budding world of live action, arthouse VR.
Gear VR , Cardboard
Best VR animation short: Allumette
First shown at Tribeca last month, Eugene Chung's stunning animation piece Allumette also won over Cannes audiences. Exploring this beautifully-crafted miniature world is the perfect mind-opening experience for film fans who've never experienced virtual reality.
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive
Best VR documentary: Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness
This beautiful, meditative VR experience premiered at Sundance New Frontier in January and has since become a favourite on the festival circuit. Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness puts you in the shoes of John Hull, a theology professor who upon losing his sight in his early forties, started keeping an audio diary to document his experience of blindness.
Combining binaural audio with minimalistic 3D animation, this sensitive four-chapter piece puts the focus on sound, letting you experience the story in a state of altered consciousness. Notes on Blindness is a remarkable testimony to the potential of VR as the perfect vehicle for emotion-based storytelling.
Gear VR, Cardboard
Best VR interactive experience: Overkill's The Walking Dead VR
Produced by Overkill, an in-house studio at Swedish gaming outfit Starbreeze, The Walking Dead VR is a co-op survival FPS slated for a 2017 release. The four minute experience available in Cannes serves as a showcase for the StarVR system, a high end headset still in development which offers an impressive 210 degree horizontal FOV (more than double the 100 of the Rift), thanks to a dual display with a resolution of 2550 x 1440.
In this first episode of TWD VR, you're sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed through rooms filled with walkers. Mid session, I was handed a shotgun, which added some interactivity. While the storyline remains very basic, the sensation of motion is one of the best I've had in VR so far, making up for an otherwise predictable experience. This type of set up seems perfectly suited for arcade gaming, which exactly what Starbreeze is looking to do with VR centres, starting in Los Angeles.
Best VR installation: Real Virtuality
Another Sundance favourite, Artanim's Real Virtuality was the only multiplayer VR experience showcased at Cannes. Using infrared motion capture, Real Virtuality combines a virtual environment and real life objects, allowing two players - equipped with a custom PC inside a hardshell backpack and dozens of mo-cap sensors - to interact within the room-scale space, shaking hands, picking up real/virtual keys and actually beingreal in virtuality.
The sensation of becoming an avatar heralds the future of fully interactive, body-scale, Matrix-like interactive experiences, akin to The VOID, which will soon be opening the first walkable virtual theme park in Utah.
Best CGI demo: Sky Harbor
This five minute short is actually a benchmarking tool (aka VR Score) developed by Crytek and Basemark to stress-test real-time 3D rendering. But don't be fooled by the tech purposes, Sky Harbor is simply one of the most stunning cinematic VR pieces to have hit the Oculus so far.
You are a robot stranded on a platform floating in space, waiting for rescue while hell breaks lose all over you, in a visual frenzy featuring battling spaceships, enemy mechas… and a stone golem. While the interaction is limited to head tracking, Sky Harbor hints at the future of blockbuster experiences, bridging the gap between film and gaming. The Rift actually doesn't do justice to the sense of scale and depth offered by the demo.
Scariest VR experience: Paranormal Activity VR
Still in alpha stage, Paranormal Activity VR, developed by VRWerx is a 10 minute first person experience based on the found footage horror franchise that drops you in the (much too) silent hallways of an old house. While the Vive setup felt buggy at times and only allowed controller-controlled motion, it still managed to deliver one of the most immersive - and nerve-shattering - experiences on display at the festival.
Scary? Definitely. Judging by the countless shrieks of terror coming from the demo booth, Paranormal Activity VR confirmed the overwhelming emotional impact of the horror genre in VR.
HTC Vive, Oculus Rift