The Tribeca Film Festival is famous for its indie films, risk-taking artists and unconventional narratives. Those same subversive directors and artists brought their skills to Tribeca's Virtual Reality Hub this year.
The past week has seen releases of dozens of new VR films, games and interactive demos, all available to Tribeca pass holders. Based on the resulting critical acclaim and high attendance numbers, the VR Hub is becoming less a novelty and more a mainstay of indie filmmaking.
The festival shows creators clearly have a firm grasp of this budding technology - the films felt both professional and intimate, and above all, highly entertaining.
After watching all the VR films and getting hands on time with as many games as we could, 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 own HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR.
Best VR film storytelling: Allumette
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," Allumette tells a bittersweet coming-of-age story of a young girl reliving her life in a floating city in the clouds. You walk among the inches-tall stop-motion characters and beautiful scenery as an omniscient observer. Unlike other VR films, Allumette doesn't punish you for looking the "wrong" way, because the story extends beyond the little people.
Allumette runs for almost 20 minutes - practically an epic by VR standards - but you'll hardly notice between following the compelling characters' lives and using your X-ray vision to explore inside every building of the intricate world. If I could choose to relive just one story-based entry on this list, Allumette would be my immediate first choice.
Best VR film characters: Invasion!
Where Allumette channels the nostalgic claymation CGI of the '90s, Invasion! perfectly captures the modern Dreamworks/Pixar art style of kids' films today - and the style fits the VR format perfectly. Huge, striking faces seize your attention, convey emotion and slapstick humor through perfectly rendered expressions, all the while subconsciously holding your attention and keeping you from leaving the core story.
Eric Darnell, the director of the Madagascar franchise, made Invasion! to entertain kids as much as adults. His deceptively sly bunny hero and bumbling alien invaders carry the story easily without dialogue, while the dramatic Ethan Hawke narration and War of the Worlds references make everything even more absurd and enjoyable.
Best VR documentary: 6x9
Several powerful Tribeca films placed you in another person's shoes to expose disturbing truths and champion social justice issues, but none did this better or used VR interaction more effectively than The Guardian's 6x9, which gave you the perspective of an inmate in solitary confinement.
Sitting inside a cell, you listen to the accounts of former inmates as you observe your claustrophobic surroundings. Your gaze on any one thing (the toilet, books, the window) triggers more recorded dialogue on what that object comes to mean over the course of years of isolation. As the film progresses, it triggers mind-warping adjustments to the environment, mirroring inmates' documented mental degradation in horrifyingly realistic ways.
Best VR music experience: Old Friend
Anyone who comes out of this short music video without a huge grin on their face and an urge to dance probably isn't human.
Old Friend was created by Tyler Hurd and Wevr, the strange creative minds behind the infamous BUTTS. Set to the song "Old Friend" by Future Island, it has you following the antics of a conductor who lip-syncs the lyrics and guides your gaze naturally around the hundreds of hilarious backup dancers. The color palette, background and choreography swap around naturally to the beat of the music.
Best of all, using Vive controllers and sensors, you can dance to the tunes and watch your own cartoonish arms and legs wiggling around. I nearly forgot the line of people standing behind me and broke out into a jig. I hope they keep making more music videos just like it.
Best VR horror film: Killer Deal
Killer Deal was directed by Anthony C. Ferrante, of Sharknado fame. Like Sharknado, Killer Deal is kind of terrible. Set at a machete convention, it features over-the-top acting, obvious horror stereotypes, a contrived plot and awful blood effects.
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Like Sharknado, it also somehow transcends its horrible parts to become something hilariously spooky and captivating. You're never sure where you should be looking, which leads to paranoid anticipation followed by genuinely freaky jump scares and a whole lot of laughter.
Best use of wearable tech: Deep VR
Deep VR was first created as a meditative virtual reality experience that teaches deep breathing exercises to clinical patients with anxiety and depression. The demo has you wear a chest strap monitor just below your diaphragm. To explore the beautiful environment, you control your vertical movement by inhaling (up) and exhaling (down).
The experience could even be an enjoyable artificial scuba-diving experience without the meditative focus. But it's the wearable, and the feeling of respiratory strength and calm, that elevates Deep VR and makes it worth returning to. Co-creator Owen Harris says they're considering a Kickstarter campaign to seek a general market for the experience outside of mental health centers.
Best use of Vive controllers: PLAYTHINGS
Imagine Guitar Hero with motion controls and food. That's the elevator pitch for this VR experience, which has you hitting hamburgers, hot dogs and jelly beans with drumsticks and hammers, producing different musical notes. After some practice with the Vive controllers, the demo scrolls food toward you that you have to hit the items to a musical rhythm, increasing the difficulty as you go. There's a great, scaleable game waiting behind this enjoyable demo.
Best upcoming VR game: Dragonflight
Blackthorn Media's third-person dragon shooter is currently available on Steam Early Access for Oculus Rift, but the HTC Vive version showcased at Tribeca had you climb onto your dragon's back (a chair) to shoot fireballs and flame bursts with Vive controllers.
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The on-rails experience was definitely a blast, though as a former Wii owner I had a familiar feeling that the sensors weren't reading my motions the way I wanted - though I still can't wait for the Vive version to incorporate the Rift feature of controlling the dragon's flight for myself.
Once Blackthorn adds the remaining six unreleased chapters and polishes the gameplay, this could become a highlight of the first generation of VR games.
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