Getting Real

2017 Is Going to be a Watershed Year for Cinematic VR

Baobab Studios’ ASTEROIDS!

I had always wanted to go to the Sundance Film Festival, but somehow, year after year, the fates conspired to keep me away. Lucky me, now I get to go as part of my day job at Unity. Our team came out in force to be part of this year’s great unveiling of virtual and augmented reality at New Frontier, the festival’s initiative at the convergence of film, media and technology. Unity’s technology powers most of the world’s XR, so we came to support our partners creating great content, and highlight the best of the best via our Made With Unity marketing program.

First off… what a difference a year makes. If you look back only one year to New Frontier 2016, we’ve gone from plopping a camera inside a circle of people to effectively using 360 with full sets and multiple cameras; from tinkering with CG set design to creating full worlds; from exploring the basic interaction to designing intuitive controls to enable true agency; and from establishing presence to enabling embodiment. We’ve even thrown augmented reality into the mix and are seeing an artful blend of animation, story and physical space. The content being showcased here at New Frontier has kicked it up a notch in so many ways that to me, 2017 is a watershed year for cinematic VR, and it’s only going to get better from here.

As with any new medium, the first few years see us trying to replicate old patterns — like those first attempts at TV, which just put a camera in front of a stage play. We know those are transient states, and we don’t know exactly where we’re headed and what techniques will stick. And we have no benefit of hindsight. It reminds me of what Henry Ford said when when developing the automobile. He famously remarked, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ’faster horses.’” The implications of a revolutionary new invention — like virtual reality — can’t be fully appreciated until long after they are first introduced. But the good news is, we’re past the prototype stage, and we’ve rolled out those first model T’s. So let’s take a look at a few things that are happening to push the envelope of Cinematic VR.

The image at the top is from ASTEROIDS!, Baobab Studios’ Made with Unity sequel to last year’s Invasion! ASTEROIDS continues the space-bound adventures of Mac and Cheese. In this version, you play the part of a robot servant, helping the heroes through various tasks and, ultimately, saving the day. ASTEROIDS is feature-film quality computer graphics, but in real time running on a PC with an Oculus Rift, and YOU are at the center of the action. That’s a long way from a year ago, when most of the graphics we’d see in VR looked more like mobile phone game graphics– dumbed down to meet the VR’s rigorous performance requirements to maintain frame rate and a comfortable experience.

Presence in VR just took a great leap forward with Life of Us, the new piece from Chris Milk and Within — also Made with Unity. Life of Us is a multiplayer experience that takes you on a journey of evolution, from a single celled organism, through higher forms of life, to humanity and beyond. Using positional tracking and touch controls, you inhabit these life forms and travel through space with a companion. In my case, my player companion was my wife, who was in town for the festival. We swam together as fish, flew like pterodactyls and danced as beautiful shining robots.

Life of Us used positional tracking to great effect — you are essentially on rails so you don’t need to figure out how to move — and gave you enough agency with touch controllers so that you could flap your arms to fly, wave to your companion, and draw streams of light in the sky. It’s a totally great and fun ride, but where Life of Us really blew the lid off was in taking presence to a whole new level. To date, the practice of creating presence in VR has been about establishing a sense of place that you feel was real… but the sense of self within that place hasn’t been there. Things mostly feel like a third person experience, and people who have tried to create a sense of self have often failed, because we still don’t have good ways to represent our own bodies. Life of Us dealt with that in a novel way: by providing a live companion on the journey, we could feel ourselves through another. This goes beyond presence to embodiment: I felt like I was not just there, but inhabiting a true self.

At the other end of the spectrum entirely is a piece called Zero Days, by Brooklyn-based Scatter. Based on a documentary film of the same name,Zero Days uses immersive VR to tell the story of the computer virus Stuxnet, used during a clandestine mission by the U.S. and Israel to sabotage an underground Iranian nuclear facility. Zero Days throws out the VR playbook from last few years: unlike most approaches to VR storytelling, it doesn’t try to give you a sense of self, or presence. And it’s not trying to create a verisimilar world, with a full, rich environment: it is abstract, laying out an information space for telling a linear story. Zero Days brings together traditional media — video, audio, CG animation, text, charts — into a seamless VR presentation, creating a new art form for telling stories. To me, it’s a tour de force of visual presentation — and may just be a glimpse of the future of documentary storytelling.

I’m delighted to say that 360 video has also made great strides. Universal is about to release Fifty Shades Darker : The Masquerade Ball VR Experience for Gear VR. This 360 video trailer features elaborate sets, great camera work, multiple camera angles, and uses the cast from the feature film. It was as high production value as a feature film, but with the intimacy of VR video. I also saw a 360 music video from 1215 Creative director Jenn Duong — giving us a look into the artist Banks, using metaphors that contrast a surreal dream like state with performance art. This is to say nothing of Felix and Paul’s masterpiece, DREAMS OF “O” — without a doubt the best 360 piece I have seen to date — based on Cirque du Soleil’s breathtaking aquatic show, “O.”

In one short year, I think we have come a long way from the “slap a camera in the middle of the room” approach, to a place where video directors are now using the medium to create real art with a point of view.

Finally, augmented reality has come to New Frontier in a big way. There were multiple AR pieces on display, including Heroes, a romantic experience about movement, space, and scale set to the tune of the David Bowie hit song. Heroes moves from VR to AR, beginning with a Gear VR 360 video of live dancers in a theatre, and ending with a Hololens installation featuring animating 3D figures, models of the theatre, and branching narrative. Heroes plays heavily with scale — of characters, environments, models and the room itself.

To sum up, 2017 is a watershed year for cinematic VR, and it’s only going to get better from here. Creators have pushed the envelope on fidelity, presence, abstraction, point of view, and use of scale. These will be the building blocks for VR and AR, moving us from traditional storytelling to the creation of whole new worlds — which is where Brett Leonard of Lawnmower Man fame thinks this is all going… and I’m not about to argue.

I think we’re seeing the first true native VR pieces– not throwbacks to other eras ported to VR– but content that can stand on its own, that you can only do in VR and AR… that people will actually come back to again and again, maybe even pay money for.

Things are getting real up in here…

To learn more about the VR and AR projects a Sundance New Frontier, check out the festival page.