This year’s New Frontier selections at Sundance point to a participatory future for virtual reality (VR), with fuzzy definitions of the audience, the creator, and the projects themselves.
Stepping into “Mechanical Souls” at Sundance’s New Frontier Central, I was expecting to be cut off from the world by a headset, swiveling in an office chair by myself and absorbing a linear narrative as it played out around me. What I got instead was a batch of new coworkers, a pineapple tea cake, and a story to investigate about a robot bridesmaid developing a mind of her own. “Mechanical Souls” has two actors guiding six participants to play the role of tech company employees.
These new employees are charged with using personal VR headsets to analyze 360-degree video footage that varies depending on where they focus their gaze. After viewing the footage in their headsets, participants try to piece together the story based on what they each saw. (My group got a little too distracted by the tea cakes to dive too deep into the nuances of the robot bridesmaid’s humanity.)
“The Dial” takes this narrative participation a step further, letting users take control of time to view the events of a murder mystery in whatever order they choose. “The Dial” accomplishes this through augmented reality (AR) technology, with 3D animation laid out in virtual space atop a physical table and model house. Participants use smartphone cameras to see the virtual world’s story play out across the table and around the house physically present in front of them.
One participant plays the role of “navigator,” controlling the flow of time by standing at certain spots around the table. Meanwhile, the other two “passengers” are free to move around the table and use their phones to investigate the virtual scenes from any angle.
Through the incorporation of live actors and social interaction, the New Frontier program shows that the future of VR will not focus on passive experiences. Instead, the future of VR might include more participatory projects enabled by technology like REACH, a platform for creating and sharing VR scenes in a web browser. Participants in the REACH demo at Sundance were able to record a video of themselves, insert it into one of the worlds from the other VR projects on display, and share their custom scene online.
Even at this early stage, REACH opens up a whole new avenue of participation by fans, who will now be able to flesh out the story of a VR project and interact with each other in its virtual world well beyond the scope of a single viewing.