PARK CITY, Utah — Someone finally cracked VR storytelling. And it's about time.
Filmmakers and other virtual reality pioneers have been fumbling around with VR "experiences" (what we're calling them now, officially) with pretty crummy results across the board. For three years running, nothing we'd seen at the Sundance Film Festival — now the biggest collection of VR in the U.S. — has been worth strapping into a headset for.
That is, until this week. Two standouts emerged at the 2017 festival: Dear Angelica, a 12-minute animated experience that debuts Friday on Oculus Rift; and Miyubi, a whopping 40-minutes-plus VR scripted comedy that comes to Oculus Rift and Gear VR next month.
Both debuted at Park City this week, and though they couldn't be more different, each is a stunning work — testaments to what VR experiences can and should be like. Mashable tried more than 20 of the VR experiences at this year's Sundance alone, and nothing anywhere has come close.
An early scene from 'Dear Angelica'
IMAGE: OCULUS STUDIOS
How much time does a story need to make you cry? No more than 12 minutes, apparently, as many people reported tearing up at the conclusion of this elegant and inspired experience from Oculus Story Studio.
The experience opens with a young woman writing a letter to "Angelica," her spindly, graceful handwriting flowing across the scene to guide the eye. We soon figure out that Angelica is her mother — who was clearly once a big movie star.
Mae Whitman voices the daughter, while Geena Davis plays Angelica, and soon we are discovering the nature of the horrible trials they endured.
The piece is made entirely of swirls of vibrant color streaking all around, forming images that transform and vanish as quickly as they appear, giving the feeling of bearing witness to someone else's living, breathing memory. And the mechanics are flawless as well.
Lean your head into any of the images and they gently recede, rather than jumping out of the picture. In some cases, your exploration is rewarded with embedded "easter eggs," images within the images, an incentive for repeated viewings.
We soon learn that 'Angelica' was a big movie star.
IMAGE: OCULUS STUDIO
It all adds up to something, in the form of a strong pull in the middle of your chest.
"When we're getting pitches from creatives, the most important thing we want to know is, what is the feeling you want to evoke from the user at every important juncture of this thing?" Colum Slevin, head of experiences at Oculus, told Mashable before a private viewing in Park City.
"There is something we struck with narrative flow that feels really natural in the medium."
That philosophy is apparent throughout Dear Angelica, which prioritizes pure emotion from the first few moments, then delivers a wallop at the end.
"People always compare it to dreaming, or memories. But what lies underneath is the way thoughts in our brain work," Story Studio lead and Dear Angelica writer/director Saschka Unseld told Mashable.
"Not constrained by the reality we have, where everything is fixed in time and space, but in our mind, when we think of things, we jump from wherever to wherever," he continued. "And I think that is closer to the way narrative works in VR. With Dear Angelica, there is something we struck with narrative flow that feels really natural in the medium."
"Natural in the medium." Those are the key words here — the dozens of VR experiences we've seen in the past felt like hacky short films in a headset. But Dear Angelica would only work in VR, and VR works for it.
It's the closest thing the medium has had to its own The Great Train Robbery (the pioneering 1903 moving-pictures blockbuster that defined much of cinema's language and was, coincidentally, also 12 minutes long). It will, at very least, stand as an important leap forward for the medium.
"We can only get there," Unseld said," by every piece adding something important to the conversation."
And there was another.
On the utterly opposite end of the tonal spectrum — but no less impressive — is Miyubi, a live-action scripted virtual reality comedy experience from Canadian creators Felix & Paul Studios in partnership with Funny or Die.
If Stranger Things hits your nostalgia buzzer, Miyubi will have you spinning in your swivel-chair
At 40 minutes-plus (depending on how you navigate it), "Miyubi" is the name of an interactive toy robot that the middle child of a well-to-do family gets for Christmas in 1982.
You are that little 'bot, tooling around the different rooms, interacting with the kids and observing a year in the life of this endearingly dysfunctional clan.
Nearly all of the experience is shot in the family's well-appointed house, which is filled with these privileged kids' toys and '80s gadgets.
If the throwback-y Stranger Things sets off your nostalgia joy buzzers, Miyubi's pitch-perfect sets and hyperstylized production designs will have you literally spinning around in your swivel-chair.
Grandpa wants to tell you about the potatoes.
IMAGE: FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS
It's funny, endearing, expertly shot and blocked, and you really do start to feel like you're this little droid, whose functions (and favor with the family) slowly break down as the year goes by.
Here's an important note, if you try it: Collect three clues to unlock a totally separate (but meta-related) scene with none other than Jeff Goldblum playing a — ehhhh, that would be a spoiler. He's great.
There's a whole range of emotions here — a scene in the teen-aged big brother's room is actually quite menacing, a tea party with the little sister is achingly cute and the story comes to a sad but satisfying, kooky conclusion, even after you'v been supplanted by a newer, more functional 'bot.
There were more than 30 VR experiences at Sundance this year, some just in the headset, others requiring specialty equipment, like a full-body haptic suit that, let's face it, you're not going to have lying around anytime soon.
We mostly stuck to the things you can download for a home headset. Though Dear Angelica and Miyubi were runaway standouts, there were three others that caught our eye:
The follow-up to Baobab Studios' innovative VR 'toon INVASION! — which starred an earth-bound bunny who unwittingly fends off two invading extraterrestrials — ASTEROIDS! takes us up into the aliens' ship, a tidy, colorful and surprise-filled place. The story itself is very contained; not a whole lot happens here, but it's a fun environment to play around in, and the characters, including a robot dog, are endlessly cute (rumor is they're in line for a feature-film treatment).
Mindshow is less an "experience" and more of a mini-VR studio platform, which allows you to toggle between characters and environments, make your own story (including recorded audio dialogue) and record it for others to experience.
It's very much in development, but the few minutes Mashable had with it went off without a hitch and, with no practice at all, yielded a funny little moment (see video clip, above). Once you create an experience, you can share it with other users who can just play it, or add to it.
With some practice, it's easy to see how it could yield some fun, social experiences — something new in VR indeed.
IMAGE: MELISSA PAINTER
There's nothing particularly special about the VR component of Heroes, which features a couple of dancers bounding around the stage of downtown Los Angeles' historic Ace Hotel. But that's just setting you up for the real whoopty-doo here.
Over in a separate room, you strap on a HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that's still in developer-kit stage (and which Mashable has written about extensively).
It's the first we've seen the HoloLens integrated at Sundance, and it's ... glitchy, dog. Voice commands worked about half the time. The artist, Melissa Painter, and producer Eric Marshall had to guide me around the room and tell me what to do at every turn.
It felt more like a platform demonstration than a real installation — which is exactly the complaint I made a year ago here. Give them some time to tinker, and AR artists will surely come up with something as groundbreaking as their VR contemporaries have.