VR headsets have become the new arthouse—the best of SXSW’s fantastic VR festival
After roughly three years of commercial viability, virtual reality seems to have excelled within a different realm than the one I typically wonder about: the film festival. Events like Sundance, Tribeca, and South By Southwest already overflow with weird, not-quite-accessible films about real-world drama, emotions, and nonsensical stories. And today, the only venue that fits those works better than arthouse theaters, quite frankly, is the ornate, vision-filling VR headset.
But filmmakers aren't just descending onto hardware like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Samsung GearVR in a boring, flash-in-the-pan manner. At SXSW 2018 in particular, they're finally exhibiting a proficiency in two equally important extremes: what VR can sell that normal films cannot, and what VR must compromise or let go of for the sake of a better film experience.
I went eyes-on with nearly two dozen VR experiences at SXSW 2018, and I'll be honest, some of them were rough. Some filmmakers still think that a 360-degree video that forces viewers to crane their neck and hunt around for content is a good idea (geez, please stop making those). Others packed far too much visual noise or too many unnecessary interactions into a 3D world that never answered the important question of why its content and message was better in VR than on a flat screen.
But the five experiences I list below all left me with both shivers and with hope for VR as an important storytelling medium for years to come.
Hold the World
My first glimpse at this VR experience was a window into someone else's session, in which they appeared to look passively at giant whale bones set to a black background. Meh, I thought. Then I was ushered to my own kiosk, and when I sat down, I was taken aback by something quite different: a remarkable volumetric capture of a living, breathing Sir David Attenborough.
After clicking through a few menus in this seated Oculus Touch experience, I was transported to a laser-scanned room in London's Natural History Museum, where Attenborough sat directly in front of me. The man was recreated entirely using real-time graphics technology, which developers confirm was filmed with a 106-camera rig at Microsoft's headquarters in the Seattle area, as he introduced a variety of fossils. Hold the World essentially sits users down with Attenborough at the NHM while he rambles in effusive yet succinct fashion about a range of massive and tiny species from ancient eras. Instead of whale and dinosaur fossils, I opted to check out the collection's smaller specimens: a dragonfly and a trilobite. ("We have a dragonfly here!" a developer incredulously shouted.)
The basic experience sounds like most any other 3D educational app: grab and rotate 3D models of specimens while listening to informative narration. But this Sky VR production, out of the UK, kicks it up a notch by having users sit with Attenborough—and I emphasize "sit" for a technological reason. The devs confirmed to me that this perspective allowed the team to focus its polygonal and texture budget on the absolutely remarkable detail in his face and shirt—all full of wrinkles, shadows, and details that remained static and high-quality even as I moved my head to look at Sir David from all sides. I compare this to last year's SXSW VR award winner After Solitary, which had to invest more polygonal budget on its subject's full body walking around. That one looks interesting but blurry; this limited, focused presentation reaches a whole other level.
Quite frankly, Attenborough's rendering took my breath in a way that I haven't felt about real-time facial rendering since the premiere of Half-Life 2. It's just stunning stuff. The primary caveat, really, is that Attenborough's virtual likeness does not react to users; he does not match your gaze, and his entire animation cycle is fixed. But the stunning-looking tech is clearly a sign of the next-level facial animation that we'll see in real-time graphics soon enough.
Beyond that holy-cow bluster, Hold the World also succeeds because of how it thoughtfully combines narration, laser-scanned fossils, and "fossils coming to life" moments. (These aspects, by the way, are way better sold with a VR headset and audio, as opposed to viewing someone's silent session on an external monitor.) I want very badly to sit science-interested kids down with this VR experience and have them pick up fossils with motion-tracked controllers, be encouraged by Attenborough to look at particular points (with fascinating Attenborough trivia as your reward for doing so), and set into motion some really clever and cleanly staged transitions from static, "stretch to zoom" fossils to how scientists imagine the beasts acted when they were alive.
It's unclear whether Hold the World will launch "this spring" as a tragically short final product (only eight fossils appeared to be available) or whether its smartphone-VR versions will look terrible in comparison. Even with those issues in mind, I still strongly urge anybody with interests in digital education and VR to put this on their wishlist.
Next up is another science-education app in VR, and thus, it has to face off with the plainly superior Hold the World. There's a little less polish here, and the educational content on offer is narrower.
But my retelling of the SXSW virtual reality forum would be incomplete without a mention of this experience, which I have affectionately dubbed "The Theater of the Womb." Wonderful You is a collection of five short films made for sit-down, head-tracked VR systems, and that distinction is important. Each six-to-eight minute film revolves around the development of a human sense while still in the fetus stage, and it's easy to imagine the films' content—all static, with no interactivity or required movement—as an easy fit for a standard 2D screen.
The design team at BDH Immersive, with its apparent background in video digital effects work, has gotten the memo on exactly how to frame a sit-down VR film. The result feels like sitting inside the craziest theater ever made. Theatrical principles, in terms of framing a full 3D scene and attracting users' attention to various directional elements, are all off the charts in these five films.
As an example, the app's section about human eyesight anchors its timeline of human development with some unforgettable visual moments. Take the creation of the optic nerve. This portion begins with viewers hovering through an inside-the-body void of dark, pink walls before a small detail explodes in the periphery: the nerve beginning to form, spotlit dramatically with cells forming under unrealistically bright light. (This effect is boosted in no small part by VR panels' ridiculous contrast ratios, which benefit from OLED technology.) The creation of this element slowly builds in the periphery, and as your sight naturally goes in that direction, the opposite end of your visible frame explodes with its own creation of cells.
It's as if the human body concocts its own Lady & the Tramp spaghetti-kiss scene. It looks that dramatic and sweet.
The same can be said for a scenes in which blurry vision organically clears up, or when tiny hair follicles form on a face with particularly entrancing animations attached, or when the app plays thoughtfully with not-quite-claustrophobic camera angles, letting you admire the human form quite close while offering a healthy amount of visual breathing room. And for all five human senses, the entire head-tracked VR space is utilized in a "less is more" way. Particle and light-ray effects fill out various empty parts of a scene, to anchor a sense of true presence while still blacking out your periphery. The directors never force you to hunt-and-peck to find content.
Every scene within this app (now free on the Oculus Store) should be commended for concentrating its polygons and its lighting on immaculately rendered human forms—because, quite frankly, a derpy looking pre-born infant would break all of Wonderful You's potential. Some of the musical cues and narration err on the side of cheesiness, sadly, but the app is at least careful to frame its various "16 weeks in" and "24 weeks in" narration stories without any, er, politically leaning angles. Meaning, interested biology fans on either side of the aisle can get something here.
My pick for SXSW's best VR experience last year, After Solitary, has received a follow-up of sorts from the same production-company combination of Emblematic Group and PBS's Frontline. You won't be shocked to hear that I am again shouting out their VR documentary efforts, but my raves are more tempered this time around.
Greenland Melting is both better and worse than its 2017 sibling for the same reason: increased scope. Viewers aren't just stuck in a tiny room this time; now they're boating around, walking toward, and taking helicopter rides above massive glaciers in Greenland, all while joined by passionate researchers who want to answer why these things are melting so danged fast.
Again, Emblematic reached out to 3D-capture company 8i to use its volumetric capture solutions, and as a result, the film's two researchers appear right next to you as you survey a massive glacier right in front of you. Walk around them and the app will restitch their appearance in real time to reflect your angle and perspective. The way they subtly appear in various scenes and how these semi-blotchy 3D people can aim their gaze in your direction to talk about the subject without looking creepy are admirably pulled off.
Unfortunately, Emblematic appears to have scaled its rendering of your environs, including far-off mountain and glacier detail, with lower-specced PCs in mind, and the results can look, at worst, like someone super-zoomed on a low-res Google Earth render.
Still, the filmmakers use fully tracked 3D space to great effect—particularly in one moment when the viewers' perspective is lowered so that they stand in near-glacier water at roughly waist height. This is when the hosts invite viewers to get on their knees, at which point they're underwater and see how much ice is down there compared to the stuff visible from the surface. (It's one thing to see a slide about age-old glaciers and icecaps in science class; it's altogether different to put your head in arctic water and see them firsthand.)
This caps off an elegantly telegraphed story of research about the exact forces driving rapid glacial melting, and it's followed by a dramatic airplane ride in which viewers can walk over to the craft's windows and look down to take in the scope of how expansive these glaciers really are.
Emblematic continues to embrace the superior results of fully tracked VR over lesser 360-degree video efforts, and they should be commended for that—and for understanding how to keep viewers' attention in busy scenes with a mix of information, audio, and visual cues. Emblematic did not announce a commercial release date for Greenland Melting's launch, but filmmakers on hand at SXSW say they're already plotting work on a follow-up experience about further glacial research and scientific advocacy.
Listing image by SkyVR