SXSW 2018 Dispatch: Surveying the VR Landscape

Editor, Festivals; Los Angeles, California (@RylandAldrich)
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SXSW 2018 Dispatch: Surveying the VR Landscape

The 2018 edition of SXSW featured 29 VR experiences in their Virtual Cinema space at the JW Marriott. We already covered a few of those 29 pieces when they premiered at Sundance. That includes Angel Manuel Soto's Dinner Party, Tyler Hurd's Chorus, Eliza McNitt's Spheres: Songs of Spacetime, Celine Tricart and Christian Stephen's Sun Ladies VR, Felix & Paul's Space Explorers: A New Dawn, and Summation of Force by Trent Parke, Narelle Autio, and Matthew Bate. Of the remaining 23, we've done 'em all and have a few words about each below.

sxsw18vr_rone.jpg Rone
Lester Francois's innovative VR documentary about Aussie street artist Rone starts in a 3D rendered gallery featuring the artist's huge murals. After traversing the short corridors examining the art, you reach a sphere which envelopes you to become a 360 documentary. The docu itself is very interesting and teaches you about the art you just viewed. Once finished, more rooms in the gallery open up, allowing the visitor to visit recreations of some of the spaces just explained in the documentary. This is very slickly done with incredible attention to detail. For instance, one room contains a sphere that once clicked, transports you into a 360 still image. But when you return, the sphere then shows a checkmark just to make sure you don't get confused about which images you've already visited. It helps that Rone's artwork is mesmerizing but Francois's exploration is a work of art on its own. It will be great to explore other artists' works this way.

sxsw18vr_aeronaut.jpg Aeronaut
AFVR's David Liu and Rob Ruffler were involved in last year's wild Gentle Manhands interactive music video Chocolate and the influence shows in this gorgeous new piece. The focus is on a volumetrically captured Billy Corgan who plays his new song of the same name seated at a 3D rendered piano. The piano floats through fantastically rendered environments with wild psychedelic landscapes and colors swirling around. AFVR captured Corgan using Microsoft's Mixed Reality Capture Studios (one of two SXSW projects shot there) and the result is quite frankly the highest quality volumetric video we've seen to this point.

sxsw18vr_awake2.jpg Awake: Episode One
Start VR's Martin Taylor has embarked on what might be the most ambitious purely narrative interactive VR project to date with Awake. Envisioned as a series of eight 22-minute volumetrically captured episodes, Taylor was showing off the first half of Episode One at the festival. The piece stars Jake McDorman and Analeigh Tipton and while it's still pretty cryptic, it involves a man in a wheelchair, lucid dreaming, a disappeared woman, and some sort of shadowy agency that's probably up to no good. Like Aeronaut, the actors were captured at Microsoft's Mixed Reality Capture Studios and it's an impressive effect. The environments are all 3D rendered but nearly photo real. This is clearly a crazy ambitious series but if they're able to keep it going, it will be awesome to see it evolve.

sxsw18vr_atrium.jpg The Atrium
New Mexico artist collective Meow Wolf had a big presence at SXSW this year with a feature documentary, a killer party, and the most visually striking VR installation. Placed right at the entrance of the Virtual Cinema were two giant steel structures with glowing floors and all sorts of fun props. Meow Wolf clearly put as much thought into the art design for people walking by as they did the in-headset experience. No surprise this was also the hardest piece to experience with a waitlist full up by mid-morning each day. Technical hurdles notwithstanding, this two-part experience was very impressive. Part one actually took place before donning the headset and had you at a steel console clicking around security cameras in a 3D rendered bedroom while two mysterious people set the stage for the piece's trippy sci-fi plot. Part two took you onto the massive platform and into the bedroom as some kind of mutant hamster. The platform was represented in VR very similarly and as the hamster, you could fly around the room and into space via a series of gestures detected impressively with an inside-out add-on tracker for the Vive. Like most things Meow Wolf does, The Atrium is very big, very impressive, and very weird.

sxsw18vr_greenlandmelting.jpg Greenland Melting
Catherine Upin and Nonny de la Peña's VR documentary about the scientists studying the looming climate crisis through the rapidly melting glaciers of Greenland is a real hit. The piece is not only fascinating but also employs some excellent photogrammetry to create 3D spaces, such as the bridge of a boat or interior of a helicopter that are then wrapped by 360 video. The effect is that the visitor can interact with objects in some limited ways like sticking your head outside to look around or peering underwater. It's a very effective technique and makes this already interesting doc even more engaging.

sxsw18vr_beethovensfifth.jpg Beethoven's Fifth
This pre-rendered 360-degree musical experience takes you inside a rehearsal with the Philharmonia Orchestra London as they play Beethoven's Fifth. Shot using Google's Jump platform and directed by VR guru and former principal filmmaker for VR at Google Jessica Brillhart, the piece fades at different intervals between multiple vantage points amongst the orchestra. It also takes you into a trippy rendered space scene at times that was made in association with NASA based on a Voyager 1 dataset. It's a very enjoyable experience but like many of the "concert docs" that switch between vantage points, it's the kind of feature that would benefit from a visitor's ability to control that switching of views. Of course, that's a technical hurdle that is still on the horizon. Until then, you can, and should, check out Beethoven's Fifth, which is actually available on YouTube now.

sxsw18vr_together.jpg Together
One of the highest profile pieces to premiere at SXSW is this modern dance experience that is directed by none other than Terrence Malick. In this 360 piece, two dancers interact with each other and the moving camera in an environment of billowing sheets with colorful projections. It's a dreamy and artistic piece that is nothing if not polished. There's no real narrative but it's certainly interesting to get a taste of what direction Malick sees for VR.

sxsw18vr_isleofdogs.jpg Isle of Dogs Behind the Scenes
This Felix & Paul piece premiered at Sundance and makes another stop at SXSW, where the feature film is set to make its world premiere at festival's end. The 360 BTS is a true joy and it's mind boggling to think of how much work went into just it (there really needs to be a behind the scenes of the behind the scenes). The visitor is treated to a number of the film's main characters (stop-motion dogs) chatting about their roles in the film while a brilliant time lapse plays out around them. The time lapse gives the visitor glimpses of how the animators worked to create the film (and the BTS). It's all kinds of fun and the sort of thing you could probably watch ten times and catch something new each time.

sxsw18vr_smashparty.jpg Smash Party SXSW
Anyone who checked out the SXSW VR program last year will likely remember Titmouse Studios' wild demon woman music video Show It 2 Me. Well, the good folks over there had something totally different to share at this year's festival. Based on their infamous parties that actually involve people smashing stuff in a cage, Smash Party is a wild VR game where you pick up a bat and break stuff. Pretty simple, and pretty awesome. It's also filled with wacky wonderful Titmouse artistry, made extra special with their SXSW exclusive version that featured some Texas inspired add-ons.

sxsw18vr_vrforgood.jpg The Evolution of Testicles, One Eighty, We're Still Here
Oculus premiered three 360 documentaries at SXSW as part of their VR for Good Creators Lab. Ryan Hartsell's The Evolution of Testicles looks to tackle the issue of male cancer awareness through comedy with the help of Chris O'Dowd. It also features masculine interviews with cancer survivors giving some straight talk on how easy detection can be. One Eighty by Eren Aksu is the story of a uneducated Indian woman who suffered in prison for some 20 years because she didn't know she had a bail equal to approximately $180. Once her son grew up (he was born in prison), he fought and ultimately saw her released. The message is that this sort of injustice is very common in India. Finally, Jesse Ayala Aiden's We're Still Here is an intimate portrait of a gender fluid "two spirits" Native American. It features both an interesting interview and some very nice aerial cinematography.

sxsw18vr_gfe.jpg GFE
Michael Jacobs's GFE (stands for Girl Friend Experience) is a short 360 docu that follows an escort as she walks the visitor through some of the intricacies of her chosen profession. The vantage points shift between empty hotel rooms, restaurants, and other places where this unnamed woman plies her trade. All the while, her voiceover explains the finer points of the job. While there is some nudity, the real impact comes from her glances directly into the camera, meant clearly to elicit the idea that you are her client. It's a powerful effect.

sxsw18vr_holdtheworld.jpg Hold the World
This interactive documentary helmed by Dan Smith lets the visitor sit in front of Sir David Attenborough while he explains a number of the most notable objects from London's Natural History Museum. Aside from the obvious highlights of hearing Attenborough's dulcet tones straight from the man himself, there are also some cool tricks like being able to zoom around on the object and learn about their intricacies.

sxsw18vr_sanctuariesofsilence.jpg Sanctuaries of Silence
This narrated 360 docu by Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee follows sound recordist (well, "acoustic ecologist") Gordon Hempton into the beautiful environs of the forests and beaches of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. Hempton is documenting the impact of noise pollution and his VO explains in poetic detail how and why. Sanctuaries of Silence is a gorgeous and truly transportive piece.

sxsw18vr_journey.jpg The Journey
Charlotte Mikkelborg's The Journey is a 360 documentary telling three stories from the African continent. Funded by UNICEF, the piece has a focus on access to medical and educational resources for young people in parts of the continent affected by drought, war, and the spread of HIV. Mikkelborg does a nice job of allowing the subjects to tell their stories with naturalistic visual accompaniment. She previously directed the VR documentary Born into Exile.

sxsw18vr_spacexgirl.jpg Space X Girl
This Korean VR short from Minhyuk Che is a dreamy story of a girl who mostly sleeps but also lives in a suitcase. I might not have totally grasped the plot but I think that's okay. It's a crazy cool world that was created nearly entirely with Google Tilt Brush. The titular Girl was traditionally captured and then placed into the world.

sxsw18vr_livingwithjaguars.jpg Living with Jaguars
This interactive docu/360 hybrid is the product of Vice's Patrick McGuire and documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice). It looks at the problem faced by ranchers and conservationists in Brazil where jaguars are being hunted by cattlemen after the jaguars kill their cattle. The piece uses VR to allow the visitor to zoom around the affected area, pick up objects where they'll hear about their uses, and activate different portions of the 360 documentary.

sxsw18vr_wonderfulyou.jpg Wonderful You
This interactive fetus simulator takes the visitor inside the womb to learn about how unborn humans experience all five senses and at what stages of gestation. It's very well-animated 3D rendering, featuring perfect narration by Samantha Morton and directed by John Durrant.

sxsw18vr_tiniesttremor.jpg Tiniest Tremor
Another VR piece dealing with pregnancy is Nicholas Manting Brewer and Megan Simon's very short artistic 360 documentary Tiniest Tremor. In this piece, the visitor hears the sad voiceover of a formerly heroin-addicted mother who gave birth to a baby with opioid addiction. The heartbreaking story is accompanied with very trippy 3D animation.

sxsw18vr_fourworlds.jpg Four Worlds
Jonathan Zawada and Mark Pitchard's VR art piece explores four different landscapes, each with a different real-world manifestation. One places the visitor on a platform with rocks housing a subwoofer. In VR you stand at the foot of a pillar of rocks and that vibrates in tune to the subwoofer. Another places a heat lamp above the viewer that represents the sun while a third has you reach out to touch a metal pole represented in both the real and virtual worlds. But undoubtedly the star of the show is a beautifully rendered field of flowers that sway in the wind while a fan blows on you. That was both the best rendered and coolest effect of the four.

sxsw18vr_everythingflows.jpg Everything Flows
This piece by Chinese artist Yumeng Du is a non-narrative moving 360 art piece that mixes live video with illustration and animation all on one palette. The visitor travels through peaceful city scenes where citizens interact with each other quietly and drawings of people and animals look on. The piece has a meditative quality, helped greatly by the soothing melody playing throughout.

sxsw18vr_mono.jpg Mono - Blackwater
Based on a "motion book," Ben Wolstenholme's comic book-esque story of a half man-half ape super hero won't make a ton of sense to anyone who hasn't read/watched the property. The VR execution is a short animated sequence, followed by two very basic mini games.

sxsw18vr_parragirls.jpg Parragirls Past, Present
This depressing piece by Volker Kuchelmeister and Alex Davies features two women telling stories from the time they spent in an Australian punitive child welfare institution that was closed in the 1970s. While you hear the anecdotes from the women (neither is shown), you see a stylized recreation of the hallways and corridors mixed in with some 360 video.

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