We sent Ben Aston, a young filmmaker based in London, to review the VR short films and interactive experiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
As a filmmaker coming to Sundance with a short film I had no idea that the pieces I would experience in the New Frontier exhibit, dedicated to technological innovation and experimentation, would be the most affecting and memorable of the whole festival.
Essential reading: The best VR headsets - Oculus, Morpheus, Zeiss VR One
None can be described as ‘consumer ready’ but for now that doesn't matter. These short films and installations represent the direction and possibilities of VR technology and the capacity it has for new kinds of storytelling.
Here's six of the most exciting projects, some of which you can download now for free.
As you enter the second floor of the New Frontier exhibit at Sundance you can't miss the bizarrely inviting Birdly harness, mainly because the queue for it goes down the block. The media lab of Max Rheiner has developed this customised flight simulator for Oculus Rift that gives the viewer the profound experience of being a bird flying over the city of San Francisco.
Look at your hands and arms: they are wings. Look at the ground and see your shadow cast as a bird of prey.
I am only allowed two minutes on the device as the demand is so high but it's enough to get a strong sense of its potential. Of all the devices this is the most sensually immersive. Perhaps my body is used to the interactivity of gaming while standing or sitting and gently reminds me that this isn’t real. When I'm forced forward into a ‘bird’ position, though, any sense of what's normal goes out the window.
Read more: The best Samsung Gear VR apps and games
The gentle fan positioned in front of my face adds an extra dimension to the experience too. Akin to ‘Smell-o-vision’ it excites additional senses to trick me into becoming the bird. Controls are reactive and intuitive and within 10 seconds I grasp the controls, forget the room around me and just go nuts.
I'm one of the privileged few who knows about the Easter egg present in the Birdly experience; if you collide with a billboard your bird is magically transported to the Himalayas. This added goal turns what is ostensibly a simulator into a game for me, and ratchets up the fun significantly. If this is the future of gaming sign me up.
Way To Go
This is the latest creation from Emmy Award-winning interactive storyteller Vincent Morisset, a film-meets-game for the Oculus Rift that hones in on the invigorating power of exploration. Way To Go is a magical walk through the woods, made up of handmade animation and 360 degree live-action video. The piece is something like Sony’s ‘Flower’ game, except that instead of controlling a petal you are a glorified stick figure. Abstract and musical, the whole experience is set on a strict path though your pale avatar does determine the pace.
Read more: How Oculus Rift works
The mechanics of the ‘game’ remain hazy to me even after an extended play through but I can't help feeling that this is the whole point. It’s a dream state in which echoes of yourself follow you.
Put it this way, you can choose to fly like a paper bag at any point. During my time with Way To Go, I also decide to stop for no reason at all, only to find my character looking into the grass and showing me a ladybug crawling over a flower.
The fusion of live action and animation further adding to the dream state, I feel like I'm living an imaginative child’s memory of a walk in the woods.
The description by Morriset asks us if we move faster, do we miss out on certain things? How do we feel when we are lost? What do we gain from looking at our world from a macro to a micro perspective? Is it the destination that matters? Who knows, the piece isn’t interested in answers, but rather raising those questions to begin with. Check this out if you can.
You're walking down a busy street in the Aleppo district of Syria. Children are playing, and vendors are peddling their wares. Suddenly, a rocket hits. Dust and debris scatter everywhere. Journalist Nonny de la Peña brings us a journalistic account of war-torn Syria and the refugee camp filling with Syrians as they flee their homeland. This piece is the only one that also includes full motion tracking technology so that I can move around the 3D space.
Though ambitious and important in its intentions, it is in biting off more than it can chew that the experience falls apart somewhat. Art direction in video games often lead your eye to the next point of interest to avoid running in circles or use arrows to point your way. This is actually something 360 degree narratives like Project Syria could learn from. The piece obviously wants me to be looking in a specific direction (i.e. where a bomb would go off) but gives me zero help in getting there. As such I feel more like Mr Magoo, constantly oblivious to what is supposed to be happening around me.
Perhaps there is also a fidelity threshold that must be reached before a VR experience can become an empathy device. It seems the intention is to penetrate the minds of media-bored young people and ask them to BE in Syria.
However I never feel that I'm around anything even slightly real, more like I'm surrounded by my Nintendo Miis. It feels bad to critically review something with such noble intentions, but in not quite working it somehow feels more exploitive than earnest. Once it does work in the future, however, this should be how we receive our news of war in distant places.
Evolution of Verse
Chris Milk returns to New Frontier (his virtual reality film Sound and Vision was showcased in 2014), this time working with visual effects powerhouse Digital Domain, acclaimed film production company Annapurna Pictures/VRSE.farm and virtual reality production company VRSE.works, to create this photo-realistic CGI rendered, 3D VR film that takes the viewer on a journey from one beginning to a new beginning.
Wareable verdict: Samsung Gear VR review
Pioneering with the lower fidelity Google Cardboard 'headset' that allows any smartphone to become a sort-of VR device, the best way I can describe this incredible piece that it's like the greatest screensaver you’ve ever seen.
It is the spiritual sequel to ‘L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat’, the film that had audiences in 1895 running from a train coming towards the camera.
I get the opportunity to experience Evolution of Verse on the superior Samsung Gear VR headset, which is where it deserves to be seen.
It’s free to download now for Cardboard and Gear VR, to say any more would ruin it. Check it out immediately.
Perspective; Chapter I: The Party
In this particularly unsettling piece a young woman attends her first college party, her mind set on cutting loose and shedding the “shy girl” identity she’s struggled with since high school. At the same party, an awkward, but slightly charming young man is hoping for a similar reinvention.
The first half of the VR film is six minutes from the man’s perspective, as he stumbles through a party and flirts with a girl. Here, the viewer is essentially inside the body of the man, looking where he looks, grabbing a cup when he does, and hearing his voice, as if it was his or her own. The next six minutes of the experience is from the girl’s heavily intoxicated perspective, as she meets the man and is ultimately raped.
According to Rose Troche, who first experienced VR at last year’s Sundance, the goal of the project was not to make a statement about college rape, but to use VR to explore the subjectivity of perspectives. Though the fidelity of the hardware has a long way to go, the empathetic power of the format is almost overwhelming.
Being hurriedly passed off into the throbbing crowd after that particular experience leaves me in a very strange mental space, the freedom being my ability to talk about it free from the guilt and pain that would distinguish the real thing. Perspective achieves what Project Syria tries and sort of fails to achieve, perhaps simply because this is live action.
There are points where I want to reach out and stop what is happening, but I can't see my hands, I'm a ghost in the machine forced to sit back and watch what is a reality to far too many people.
WILD – The Experience
Fox Searchlight and the Fox Innovation Lab present this virtual reality experience drawing from the film Wild. Wearing a Samsung Gear VR, you enter a fully immersive 'media environment' to join an intimate moment on the Pacific Crest Trail between a woman, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), and her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), a vision from the afterlife.
Despite its slight purpose as an interactive movie trailer, the experience of seeing someone as famous as Reese Witherspoon close up and in 3D was bizzarre and interesting.
I had no interest in seeing this film but now I kind of want to. So… success? I dunno. At the end there is a CGI fox. Take of that what you will.
Want more? Watch Ben's intriguing short film He Took His Skin Off For Me which showed at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.