Tech is playing a larger role at SXSW with every passing year, and despite the deeply irritating fact that some tech-bro says the word “disrupt” approximately every .42 seconds somewhere in Austin this week, there’s one arena that’s seen a marked leap forward: Virtual reality tech. Cost is still the biggest impediment to any sort of mainstream embrace of the technology: Dropping a grand on a computer (without even factoring in the cost of required headset, controllers, sensors, etc.) is still out of most people’s reach. But holy hell, the things being done with VR at this point make it an inevitable next step in pop culture and entertainment. At least, I hope it is, which is the first time I’ve thought that. Here are some of the reasons why.
Best purely cinematic VR experience: Dinner Party
It seems like a lot of film directors are loath to embrace VR for the same reason that Roger Ebert famously dismissed video games as a form of art: They think it’s a gimmick that punishes artistry in the name of the medium’s requirements. (Or maybe they just have bad memories of Avatar, and suspect this is that times a billion.) But there are techniques to use VR for storytelling in thrillingly new ways, much of which has to do with the Wild West frontier of crafting imagery meant to be explored in 360 degrees and an ever-changing perspective. And on both of those fronts, Dinner Party was the clear winner.
Based on the actual story of the Hill UFO abduction, the 15-minute short uses recreations of hypnosis sessions involving a couple who believe they were abducted. It explores new ways of communicating narrative through camerawork, to marvelous results. It begins with the viewer dozens of feet above the domestic location and slowly dropping in, a move the film’s executive producer Erik Donley is justifiably proud of. As he explained after I saw it, many of the complaints about VR come thanks to the many people molding story to fit the technology, instead of the other way around. With fascinating cinematography (thanks to DP Sam Gezari) that keeps the single-take film constantly unearthing new frames of reference, it’s a marvel. (Full disclosure: As I watched the end credits, I realized a dear friend had a small role in it.)
Best “holy shit” moment of innovation: “Spheres: Songs Of Spacetime”
This second chapter of a three-part series executive produced by Darren Aronofsky is based on research that just won a Nobel Prize. Director Eliza McNitt was somewhat in mourning when I saw the film, Stephen Hawking having just died the day before (“I owe him my imagination,” she told me), and his influence is all over her short about the nature of gravitational waves—essentially ripples in space-time that occur when black holes collide. Narrated by Jessica Chastain, the film grants viewers the experience of falling into a black hole, and creates a very human metaphor for the ways these waves happen.
McNitt was repeatedly told the “holy shit” aspect of her project was too difficult to pull off, but she persevered, and thank goodness she did. I hate to spoil the surprise, but it’s worth hearing about since most people who watch the short via Oculus won’t get the pleasure. At a certain point, two black holes have collided, and suddenly Chastain suggests you speak aloud, as a way to evoke waves of your own in the space around you. Skeptically, I said, “Uh, okay”—and was immediately rewarded by the film translating my utterance into gravitational waves, creating a personal connection to the material. I proceeded to say “Holy shit” every couple of seconds for about a minute straight, watching my words miraculously translated into visual grammar around me. I don’t know how McNitt did it, but it was amazing.
Best screw-it-let’s-have-fun VR: Smash Party
There’s a reason this game is already popular with VR users. Smash Party is the epitome of simplicity: Grab a bat and start smashing things, accruing points as you do. That’s all there is to this arcade-style game. I found myself swinging awfully hard, and was breathing heavily by the end of it, which doubles as both an endorsement and warning. One of the developers told me his favorite review online by a player was one sentence: “We used to have an Ikea table.” This was just a small updated version tailored for SXSW, which meant the moon was wearing a cowboy hat, among other things.
Best use of VR for a social message: “Greenland Melting”
A collaboration between Emblematic Group with PBS’ Frontline and Nova, this VR short used photogrammetry capture to create a trip to Greenland, combining thousands of photos for an immersive icy landscape. The main message of the film—that glaciers largely melt from below the water, not above it—is achieved via a clever maneuver: Instead of forcing viewers to be submerged, it drops you right above the water, and unless you’re completely devoid of curiosity, your instincts for exploration take over, and you get down on one knee in order to look below the surface. It’s the audience’s own choice to learn the cause of the ice melt on Earth, which psychologically ties you to the material. It’s a subtle cue to your brain that even though climate change is almost too big to contemplate, this is likely the greatest existential threat facing humanity.
Nerdiest use of VR storytelling: Meow Wolf—The Atrium
If you haven’t yet heard of Meow Wolf, you likely will soon: The geeky arts collective is rapidly expanding. What began as a group of discontented artists making elaborate installments in Santa Fe is now a multimillion-dollar company, with a strange bowling alley turned mystical house art installation (originally funded by George R.R. Martin, of all people) expanding into multiple cities and projects. All of this is recounted in the new documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story, an engaging if messy and overlong film detailing the group’s history from basement parties to governmental sponsorships and hundreds of employees. At heart, the collective endeavors to make immersive and unusual public art installations, often a combination of sci-fi, steampunk, fantasy, and surrealism threaded through with narrative and bountiful imagination.
The group’s newest VR experience, The Atrium, sees participants transformed into an anthropomorphic gerbil. You’re pint-sized, but floating around on a steerable dirigible as you explore the bedroom of a precocious teenage girl. Oh, and there’s also a story involving a cult, dimensional rifts, and more, but a lot of the fun comes from how massive the VR platform is. Looking something like a space-age MMA fight ring, you’re plunked into a middle of an environment three times the size of your average VR maneuvering area, making it a much more immersive experience. It was a hell of a lot of fun, and a nice reminder why Meow Wolf actually earns all that praise.
VR MVP Award: Awake
Writer-director Martin Taylor hit upon something special when he put together the idea for Awake, a new eight-part partially interactive series that follows different characters as they explore the nature of dreams, life, and the occasionally blurry lines in between. Martin has been a lucid dreamer almost since birth; “I’ve always been keen to communicate those experiences to other people,” he tells me after I watch the first part of episode one. “I want to give people goosebumps.”
The project plunges participants into the middle of a strange story about a man who lost his wife to some mysterious force, and now sits broken, unable to put together the steps necessary to bring her back. We know it has something to do with dreaming—Martin admits that excerpts from his personal dream diaries play a role in the universe he’s created—and the living room into which you’re launched is chock-full of clues, every object imbued with meaning and hidden significance. In some ways, it reminded me of a 21st-century version of Myst, only transformed into more narrative than game. But the narrative rewards exploration: Simple controls allow you to traverse the room, getting a closer look at items, picking up a ringing phone, and more.
By the end of the series, Martin promises, you’ll not only understand all the little details uncovered along the way, but you’ll also realize what role you, the participant, play in the story. (In that sense, there’s a distinct whiff of the audacious fourth-wall breaking currently being performed by Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot.) He collaborated with numerous others to shape the script, including Red Dead Redemption writer Christian Cantamessa, giving it a depth and scope rarely found in games. But if it’s not a game, it’s not quite a pure TV series, either. It inhabits a space between the two. In other words, it’s doing something new and exciting, pushing the entire medium forward, and it deserves a closer look.