The South By Southwest conference, which kicks off in Austin this Friday, has long straddled the worlds of technology, film, and music. In other words: It may be the perfect showcase for the latest and greatest in virtual reality. This year, the fest is launching its first dedicated VR section with the new Virtual Cinema slate of the SXSW Film Festival. Here are six highlights that attendees won't want to miss.
Life of Us, directed by Chris Milk
One of the great promises of VR is ability to create shared virtual environments, where disparate individuals are beamed into a single digital space. In Life of Us, users who are VR-ing from different physical rooms get to see themselves (and the person they are partnered with) evolve from primordial protozoa to modern man and beyond (apparently the future of evolution looks a lot like a Daft Punk video).
The real fun comes from how the bizarre visuals and freaky sound effects (users’ voices are modulated in strange ways) encourage people to let loose. I experienced Life of Us when it made an appearance at this year’s Sundance, and it was fun to just hang out nearby and listen to the bizarre sounds coming out of people’s mouths. During the Jurassic phase of the experience, I heard one guest repeatedly yell: “I’m a dinosaur! I’m a dinosaur! I’m a dinosaur!” If only.
Miyubi, directed by Félix Lajeunesse & Paul Raphaël
With a 40-minute runtime and appearances by actors such as Jeff Goldblum, Miyubi is notable for its length and production value. Here's what I wrote after trying it at this year’s Sundance:
In Miyubi, you are a 1980s robot: The prized Christmas present of a young child who quickly assigns you best-friend status, and all of the confidential chatter that comes with it.
It's a cool concept, and casting you as a robot creates a plausible scenario in which characters can acknowledge your existence, without expecting you to hold a conversation. But things quickly became far more interesting than I expected. For most of the film's 40-minute runtime (yes, that is very long for a VR experience), I thought I was watching a 360 video where I had no ability to actually interact with the environment.
But then something happened: As I began to explore each scenes’ background, I stumbled upon several Easter eggs that actually changed the course of the experience: Inserting a sense of agency into a feature that I thought was preordained. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that there are a couple of hidden scenes in this film (one of which features a cameo from Jeff Goldblum), and that your actions unlock them.
At its best, VR storytelling manages to endow the viewer with a sense of agency and control, while still giving the author narrative control. Giving users the ability to alter an experience around the edges is much easier with computer-generated animation (which, like Asteroids! can easily borrow some elements from video games) than it is with live-action. The triumph of Miyubi is its ability to make you feel invested and in control of a live-action experience, and its long runtime undoubtedly makes it a template for feature-length VR storytelling to come.
Fistful of Stars, directed by Eliza McNitt
One of VR’s most powerful effects is its ability to create the illusion of vast space. You may be wearing a headset a conference room, but with no walls in sight, your brain enjoys the awe-struck feeling of being in an expansive space. With Fistful of Stars, that expansive space is literally deep space. The experience puts viewers way out into the cosmos, where they can see and experience the stars. Joining them is the Hubble Cantata, a musical composition featuring a 30-person ensemble and 100-strong choir, along with stars of a different sort: singers from the Metropolitan Opera.
The Melody of Dust, directed by Viacom Next & Hot Sugar
This music-filled VR collaboration between Viacom Next and the musician Hot Sugar is being billed as an experience that places you inside a tortured mind, “seeking in part, to unlock a song that has been eluding you your whole life.” As you interact with different objects in a room, they unlock different musical melodies, effectively turning the experience into a VR song that may never play the same way twice. "The experience allows you to embed yourself in the creation of a melody unique only to you, by way of your interaction with the room," says David Liu, virtual reality creative director at Viacom Next.
Reinvent, directed by Ian Forester & Sook-Lei Liew, Phd
Reinvent (it stands for Rehabilitation Environment using the Integration of Neuromuscular-based Virtual Enhancements for Neural Training) is a VR experience that could serve as a prototype for ways the technology could someday be used for good. In this case: To help treat the sort of severe motor impairment that can come from a stroke. It works by “integrating low-cost EEG and electromyography EMG sensors with feedback in a headmounted VR display to provide neurofeedback when an individual’s neuromuscular signals indicate movement attempt, even in the absence of actual movement.”
In English: If you suffer from issues that keep you from moving your body, the sensors detect that you're trying, and use neurofeedback to push you to the point where those attempted movements could eventually become real ones. It’s inevitable that VR, and its unique ability to trick their nervous systems into feeling like they are doing something that might be physically impossible, will be used for all sorts of therapeutic and medical applications. This is an interesting use case that could have a real impact on patients’ lives.
Show It To Me, directed by Mark Brooks & Dylan Carter
Users are placed in a neon-tinted “retro-futuristic landscape” (think: Miami Vice by way of Neil Stephenson) while the Night Club track “Show It 2 Me" pulses. Of note: The art was created in Google’s Tilt Brush VR painting program, giving it a three-dimensional quality that is ripe for exploration.