If you're not into video games, you don't need a virtual reality headset, right?
Wrong, according to a burgeoning group of filmmakers and performance artists. Their creations, many of which were screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month, use virtual and augmented reality to blur the lines between a film's characters and audience. With everything from zany movie-videogame hybrids like Asteroids to high-brow performance art like Heroes, the artists are exploring the limits of how much their audiences are willing to participate in a film once they strap on a VR headset.
The danger is that "if you allow users to have too much interactivity, they're not being engaged," said Larry Cutler of Baobab Studios, which produced Asteroids. Like many of his peers, he has roots in Hollywood—a 10-year stint developing characters at Pixar—and the tech world, as a VP at big data company Metanautix. So it's perhaps unsurprising that he refers to his audience as "users." Indeed, most artists working in what they call the "AR/VR" medium, short for augmented and virtual reality, are careful to make the same distinction—the audience isn't watching a movie, they're using a product.
Like developers of conventional video games, Baobab's artists create their work using the Unity game development platform. The studio, along with several peers who also use Unity, brought their creations to Unity's San Francisco headquarters this week, where I got to watch them—er, got to use them—on the HTC Vive$799.99 at Amazon, Samsung Gear VR$84.99 at Amazon, and Microsoft HoloLens. Here's the best of what I saw.
Baobab's Asteroids animated short film is directed by Eric Darnell, of Madagascar fame. It takes place on an alien spaceship and is a sequel to Invasion, which received critical acclaim at the Cannes and Tribeca film festivals last year. As an audience member, you play the part of a "Class C menial task robot," and the film's main characters—robots Mac and Cheez and their dog, Peas—boss you around.
In the beginning of the film, you feel like you're a dog banished to his crate. Occasionally, the main characters will pay you some attention, even asking you to complete a few tasks like playing catch with Peas the dog, but mostly you just stand there. The robots don't speak English, either, so forget about understanding what they're saying to you.
By way of explanation for this banishment, Baobab CEO Maureen Fan says that "most people don't know what to do" when they strap on a VR headset. Initially relegating the audience to the role of antagonist serves two purposes, she says: it helps VR newbies not feel overwhelmed, and it builds suspense for the film's climax, when Cheez (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) suddenly falls ill.
Spoiler alert: it's up to you to save Cheez. If you'd like to take revenge on her for making your life miserable, you can simply let her die. If instead you're in a mood to forgive, you can use your Vive controllers to zap her with a giant laser in order to restart her heart. I opted for forgiveness, and ended the film freed from my corner. I didn't repeat the movie to find out what will happen if you chose to let Cheez die.
Life of Us
Life of Us, from the Within studio, falls firmly into the adventure category. It's multiplayer, to borrow a term from the video game industry, so to get the full experience you'll need a friend who also owns a VR headset.
The journey essentially follows the story of human evolution, so creationists can stop reading here and skip to the next section. You begin as an underwater amoeba-like creature, using the Vive controllers to flap fin-like appendages as you follow oxygen bubbles to the water's surface. (While you can flap all you want, you can't actually control where you move—this is a movie, not a video game).
You quickly move onto land, where you're transformed into a succession of beings, from apes to birds to briefcase-toting businessmen. Along the way, you'll have to outrun dinosaurs, survive the desert and the freezing cold, and ward off attacks from what appear to be cute lemur monkeys.
Perhaps the most unique part about Life of Us is that you complete the whole narrative with a partner, who appears next to you in the movie at all times. Everything you say to him or her is recorded by the Vive's microphone and garbled into an alien-sounding voice in the movie. It's gimmicky, but hey, at least you have no one but yourself to blame if you don't like the canned dialogue.
Ever wonder what the iconic David Bowie song "Heroes" would look like if you could see it? Advertising firm MAP Design Lab did, and this two-part experience is what they came up with.
To watch the first part of the film, you don a Samsung Gear VR headset. A more powerful headset like the Vive should work, too, but you don't need its motion-tracking capabilities because there's no interactivity. Instead, you're suspended in midair, watching two dancers writhe together in multiple places in and around the splendid United Artists Theater in Los Angeles. It's like attending your own private ballet.
Once you've finished that, it's time for the second part of Heros: take off the Gear VR, put on the Microsoft HoloLens, and create your own ballet. Taking advantage of the HoloLens's augmented reality capabilities, you walk around the physical room, where tiny versions of the ballet scenes from the first part are playing. Using voice commands, you can enlarge the dancers or stop and start the action. As you walk around the room, the HoloLens records your movements with a flowing virtual ribbon, which is placed at your feet at the end of the film so you can see where you've "danced."
Each of the three films should be available for Vive owners to download on the Steam store sometime this year, their creators said. Like its prequel, Asteroids will likely also be available for the Oculus Rift. It's worth noting, though, that you won't be able to experience the second part of Heroes unless you're willing to shell out the thousands of dollars required to own a pre-production HoloLens