The hipster crowds at an East London docklands studio all have their sights set on one of three HTC Vives. It's the London stop of Kaleidoscope, a VR film festival which is touring ten cities around the world between now and the middle of April. And that's the thing about virtual reality - you need a headset to try it.
Which makes a VR film festival a bit of an odd experience. Funnily enough, we've heard this week that the first VR cinema is to open in Amsterdam. Named the Virtual Reality Cinema, it will hold 50 people at once, all sat on swivel chairs with Samsung Gear VRs running on Samsung Galaxy S6s and Sennheiser headphones.
Here at the Kaleidoscope showcase, there are also a handful of Oculus Rifts and dozens of Gear VRs designed to showcase 33 curated experiences. I managed to view five of these and even that took about two hours to get through due to the queues.
So if you're planning to attend be prepared to queue and be prepared for technical difficulties. But look forward to VR experiences which aren't yet available for the Gear VR, which is, of course on sale including a few premieres. Another pro tip: if you are able to, book a timeslot with the Vive.
Kaleidoscope has put together a very promising selection of VR with a mix of the bigger studios and relative unknowns. As the festival's co-founder René Pinnell remarked, "The playing field is really level, you have big names making crappy VR and independent creators making great stuff." There's a nice diversity of where the makers come from too - though only two women. Kaleidoscope also needs to figure out the logistics of a touring VR festival a little more.
After stops in Paris and Tel Avis, the World Tour will now leave London for one day showcases in Stockholm (12 March), Cologne (18 March), Berlin (22 March), Amsterdam (25 March), Pangyo, South Korea (31 March), Tokyo (6 April) and finally Melbourne (12 April). Last year, it toured North America with a similar selection of films and experiences.
Mad God VR
This creepy little two minute film is the work of director and visual effects maestro Phil Tippett (Star Wars, RoboCop etc). It's a stop motion animation, produced by Wevr, for the Gear VR which premieres at Kaleidoscope's World Tour. I found myself plonked down in the middle of freaky looking, moaning characters before ... well I don't want to spoil it but you'll be leaning back as far as you can go in your seat.
It's beautifully crafted and had me wishing I'd experienced the Oculus Rift version which was also developed. The next stage for this crossover of disciplines, according to Pinnell, is volumetric capture of stop motion models which was one of the ambitions of this initial project.
This two minute sneak peek of Baobab Studio's upcoming CG work is designed for Oculus Rift and makes clever use of SubPac's haptic vest, this was the first time I'd actually worn the VR accessory. The rumble vest made me look around the alpine scene I had arrived in to find out where the noise and well, rumbling of an alien spaceship was coming from. The whole experience was pretty delightful and the animation was really crisp, among the best I've seen.
Directed by Eric Darnell, the full storyline will involve advanced aliens (they looked pretty adorable to me) arriving on Earth to claim it for their own.
One of the rewards of queuing for a HTC Vive demo, Tyler Hurd's "psychedelic dance party" overwhelms the senses. Again produced by Wevr, it's kind of a music video for the extremely uptempo Future Islands track Old Friend.
Like Hurd's previous work BUTTS, also showing at Kaleidoscope (in theory), the world you are thrust into is populated by colourful, won't-stand-still animated characters and trippy, repetitive motifs. Totally. Awesome.
Visualise x Médecins Sans Frontières
London based virtual reality creators Visualise showed off two 360 degree storytelling projects at Kaleidoscope's London pitstop - a short film showing the lives of refugees in Tanzania and another film delving into the history, architecture and significance of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Both make good use of an onscreen presenter and showing us, the VR viewer, around either the camps or the tourist attraction and according to Visualise, both should make their way to the Gear VR's store at some point.
More Kaleidoscope highlights to look out for
That's a taster of the range of projects that are on show, on various headsets, at the festival and, like we said, unless you book time slots, chances are you will only be able to see a handful of experiences.
If you get chance, try to check out some more highlights including La Péri: A Prelude, a five minute, interactive homage to Disney's Fantasia with two dancers (one of which is you) for HTC Vive; The Rose and I by Penrose Studios on Oculus Rift, Mike Tucker Tana Pura for Gear VR, which is set to an original score by Jonny Greenwood and the VR music video SURGE for Oculus Rift.
You can see the full line-up of 33 VR films, projects and experiences here.