The Unofficial Sundance 2017 VR Awards

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The Unofficial Sundance 2017 VR Awards
January 31, 2017

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, virtual reality was front and center. And with good reason: The festival has always been a go-to place for nontraditional and quirky storytelling techniques, and with VR still in its early days, many creators feel free to experiment and try new things. On display across several venues, the festival's New Frontier program of emerging art and technology saw artists, filmmakers, and technologists push the boundaries in terms of how VR can be used to tell stories.

 

As a way of breaking down some of the most exciting pieces on display at Sundance, I present my first annual Really Cool VR Awards. The trophy is in the mail. I promise.

 

The "I Can't Stop Dancing" Award

 

Fun fact: When you’re wearing an eye-covering headset and can’t see actually yourself or how people are looking at you, it’s amazing how quickly self-consciousness seems to disappear. Mix in some catchy music and fun visuals, and VR can be remarkably effective at getting folks to shake and twirl with the sort of beautiful abandon that is unbecoming of polite society.

 

Winning at this was Chocolate, which comes courtesy visual artist Tyler Hurd, who is quickly making a name for himself as VR’s preeminent shake-like-you-just-don’t-care artist. Like his previous work (you really should find a way to experience Old Friend, his VR music video for the Future Islands song of the same name), Chocolate immerses you in a candy-colored world of dancing cartoon characters. Surrounded by an infectious beat and a cast that seems to be begging you to dance along, it’s nearly impossible not to bust at least a small move. That is, of course, until you realize that your virtual arms are also cannons, capable of firing an endless stream of anime-eyed kittens in the air. If you’ve ever dreamed of operating the T-shirt cannon at a rave, this is for you.

 

“Having seen hundreds of people try Chocolate, you never get tired of watching someone experience it for the first time with a huge smile on their face as they dance around like nobody’s watching," says Rob Ruffler, senior director of Viacom Next, which produced the experience with Hurd. "He has a way of tapping into that part of your brain that makes you lose your inhibitions, allowing you to recapture that sense of childlike wonder.“

 

(Lead artist: Tyler Hurd)

 

The "What Noise Is That?" Award

 

One of the more entertaining ways to spend an afternoon at Sundance: Sit outside the Life of Us display and listen to the shrieks, howls, and non-sequiturs that come out of the mouths of participants. In this multiperson experience—users are placed in different physical rooms, but interact in a shared virtual space—participants see themselves (and the person they are partnered with) transform from primordial protozoa to modern man and beyond (apparently the future of evolution looks a lot like a Daft Punk video).

 

The combination of a shared social environment and quickly-shifting voice modulators encourages guests to make all sorts of strange noises. 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.

 

(Lead artists: Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, with music by Pharrell Williams)

 

The "Most Beautiful VR" Award

 

Dear Angelica is one of the most visually stunning—and tear-jerking—VR experiences I’ve ever encountered. Like a next-generation picture book, the story of a child and her movie star mother is told with hand-drawn illustrations that seems to sprout around you in three dimensions. In seconds, a claustrophobic bedroom gives way to unbelievably expansive worlds filled with superheroes and dragons, filled with enough detail to keep Easter egg-hunters busy for hours. (Fortunately, the Oculus experience allows users to pause at any time, giving them the chance to explore any given blink-and-you-miss it scene, and examine its hidden, hand-drawn touches).

 

Almost as interesting as the experience itself is the story of how it was made. In partnership with the Oculus Story Story, its creators actually built a new computer program that allowed them to draw the complex environments entirely in Oculus.

 

(Lead artist: Saschka Unseld)

 

The "I’m In Control!" Award

 

Perhaps no VR house produces better-looking animation than Baobab Studios. And with good reason: It was cofounded by Eric Darnell, director of the Madagascar films, and an old pro at making cartoons look really, really good.

 

What makes Asteroids! so interesting is its willingness to blur the lines between a movie and a game. In it, you are cast as a helper robot onboard a spaceship with a few incredibly toyetic aliens. For most of the 15-minute runtime, you merely watch the action. But at a few key moments, you are called upon to participate and help the aliens save the day. The action doesn’t seem to offer different narrative possibilities (although you can spend some time playing fetch with a dog-like alien pet if you choose), but it does draw you into the story, and will likely give younger viewers a real sense of accomplishment.

 

(Lead artist: Eric Darnell)

 

The "Future Of Movies" Award

 

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.

 

(Lead artists: Félix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphaël)

 

The "What Is Reality?" Award

 

Perhaps no VR experience at Sundance messed with my head quite like The Sky Is The Gap. As you walk through what appears to be the aftermath of a chaotic explosion of clip art, time moves forward and backwards depending on which direction you walk through a room. I've long been fascinated with ways artists are using roomscale technology (that is: the ability to map physical movement to virtual worlds in VR), and this is one of the most creative—and sense-bending—takes I've seen yet.

 

(Lead artist: Rachel Rossin)

 

The "I Never Want To Take This Off" Award

 

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to try out the Synesthesia Suit: A Velcro-on body suit that uses a few dozen embedded motors to add full-body haptic feedback to VR. At the time, I was blown away by the suit’s (rather trippy) ability to add the sense of touch to psychedelic environments.

 

Well, the suit is back at Sundance, and now it’s even better. For one, the hardware appears to be a bit more polished (it had a bit of a homemade feel when I used it a few months back). Its creators are also now showing off the device’s integration with two separate VR experiences: A Playstation VR space-shooter called Rez Infinite, and a psychedelic art piece called Crystal Vibes. Sure, it might be some time before consumers are strapping themselves into Velcro body suits at home, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t absolutely blown away by the sensation.

 

(Lead artists: Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Ayahiko Sato, Kouta Minamizawa)

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