Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals

Image by mconnors

Image by mconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on December 12, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on December 19, 2014,  January 13, 2015 and March 27, 2015.]

December 12, 2014 Post:

At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to be held in Park City Utah from January 22, 2015 through February 1, 2015, part of this major annual film event is a program called New Frontier. This year it will be presenting 13 virtual reality (VR) films and “experiences”. Advanced coverage of this event was reported in an article on Wired.com on December 4, 2014 entitled VR Films Are Going to Be All Over Sundance in 2015 by Angela Watercutter. After reading this exciting preview I wanted to immediately pack a bag and start walking there.

To sum up, annotate and comment upon some of the key points in this story, the platforms being used for these presentations will mostly be the Oculus, while Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR will also deployed. While the Oculus Rift headset has not yet released to the consumer public, developers currently do have had access to it. As a result, they were able to create and format these soon-to-be-premiered experimental works. This year’s offerings are a much deeper and wider lineup than the much more limited sampling of Ocolus-based experiments presented during the 2012 Sundance Festival.

(In a recent Subway Fold post on November 26, 2014 entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015, one of the startups briefly mentioned is called Jaunt which is described in the blog post as “… developing an entirely new platform and 360 degree camera to create fully immersive virtual reality movies to be viewed using the versatile new Oculus Rift headset.”)

Attendees at some other recent industry events have responded very favorably to Oculus demonstrations. They included a HBO’s presentation of a Game of Thrones experience at this year’s South by Southwest festival, a Jaeger-piloting simulation ¹ at the 2014 Comic-Con in San Diego , and at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

To read what some of the creators involved in Sundance’s VR movies have to say about their creations and some brief descriptions and 2-D graphics of this immersive fare, I very highly recommend clicking through and reading this report in its entirety. They include, among others, news and documentaries, bird flights, travel landscapes, rampaging Kaiju, and several social situations.

I wanna go!

My follow-up questions include:

  • Because VR movie production is entirely digital, can this experience be securely distributed online to other film festival and film schools to share with and, moreover, inspire new VR cinematic works by writers, directors, producers and actors?
  • Can the Hyve-3D virtual development platform covered in this August 28, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Hyve-3D: A New 3D Immersive and Collaborative Design System, be adapted and formatted for the cinema so that audiences can be fully immersed in virtual firms without the need for a VR headset?
  • If entertainment companies, movie producers, investors and other supporters line up behind the development and release of VR movies, will this be seen by the public as being more like 3-D movies where the novelty has quickly worn off ², or more like a fundamental shift in movie production, presentation and marketing? What if, using the Oculous Rift, users could experience movie trailers, if the entire film at any location? Would this be a market that might draw the attention of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google and other online content distributors and producers?

____________________________
1.  In another Jaeger and Kaiju-related update, there is indeed good news as reported on June 27, 2014 on the HuffingtonPost.com by Jessica Goodman in a story entitled ‘Pacific Rim 2’ Confirmed For 2017 Release Date.

2.  See 2014 Box Office Will Be Hurt By Diminishing Popularity Of 3D Movies: Analyst by David Lieberman, posted on Deadline.com on February 3, 2014. For other new theater experience innovations, see also To Lure Young, Movie Theaters Shake, Smell and Spritz by Brooks Barnes in the November 29, 2014 edition  of The New York Times.

____________________________

December 19, 2014 Update:

The current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

January 13, 2015 Update:

While VR’s greatest core ability is in placing viewers within a totally immersive digital  environments, this also presents a challenge in keeping them fully focused upon the main narrative.That is, something happening off to the left or right may draw their attention away and thus detract from the experience.

A startup called Visionary VR has developed a system to reconcile this challenge. It enables creators of VR entertainment to concentrate the viewer’s attention upon the action occurring in the stories and games. This was reported in a most interesting article posted on Recode.com on January 5, 2015 entitled In Virtual Reality Movies, You Are the Camera. That Can Be a Problem, but Here’s One Solution, by Eric Johnson. I believe this will keep your attention as a reader, even in the three dimensions in the real world, and recommend clicking through for all of the details. As well, there is a rather spectacular video presented by the founders of the company on the capabilities of their system.

To recap the key points, Visionary VR creates an invisible boundary around the main narrative that alerts the viewer that they are looking away into other “zones” within the environment. When this occurs, the narrative is suspended but viewers can venture into these interactive peripheral areas and further explore elements of the story. Just as easily, they can return their gaze back to the story which will then re-engage and move forward. Visionary VR has created platform and toolkit for VR authors and storytellers to generate and edit their work while within a virtual environment itself. When viewing the accompanying video, the interface reminded me of something out of Minority Report.

(Btw, it has just been announced that this movie is going to be turned into a TV pilot for Fox according to a story posted on Deadline.com entitled ‘Minority Report’ Gets Fox Pilot Order, by Nellie Andreeva on January 9, 2015. This post also contains a photo from the movie showing this then fictional and now real interface. How cool would it be to see this new pilot in full VR?!)

March 27, 2015 Update:

VR movie technology continues to gather momentum and accolades at 2015’s artistic festivals. Its latest display was held at last week’s (March 13 through 17, 2015) South By Southwest Festival (SXSW). The page for the VR panel and speakers is linked here. Coverage of the event was posted in a very informative and enthusiastic article on VentureBeat.com entitled The Future of Interactive Cinematic VR is Coming, and Fast by Daniel Terdiman, on March 18, 2015.

Those in attendance were truly wowed by what they saw, and, moreover, the potential of fully immersive experiences and storytelling. Please click-through to this story for the full details. I will briefly sum up some of the main points.

The article mostly highlights and highly praises the demo by Jaunt, a startup emerging as one of the innovators in VR movies, mentioned in the initial December 12, 2014 post above. Other VR companies also presented their demos at SXSW.

The Jaunt demo consisted of Paul McCartney playing Live and Let Die in concert. Here’s the link to Jaunt’s Content page containing the stream for this and eight other VR movies (including the Kaiju Fury! film also mentioned in the December 12th post above). In order to immerse yourself in ay of these you will need either an Oculus Rift headset or a Google Cardboard device.

VR movie technology is indeed presenting filmmakers with “opportunities that have not been possible before”. This is likewise so for a range of content creators including, among others sure to come, musicians, athletes, interviewers and documentary makers.

Another panelist, Jason Rubin, the head of worldwide studios for Oculus, spoke about the level of progress being made to make these narrative experiences more genuinely interactive with viewers. He believes this will lead to entirely new forms of cinematic experiences.

Arthur van Hoff, Jaunt’s founder and CTO, stated the possibility of VR films where users can follow one particular actor’s perspective and story within the production. (Visionary VR’s technology, described in the January 13, 2015 Update above, might also be helpful in this regard.)

While new “companies, technologies and investors” in this nascent field are expected, Jaunt believes its current two-year lead will give its technology and productions an advantage.

Updates on Recent Posts Re: Music’s Big Data, Deep Learning, VR Movies, Regular Movies’ Effects on Our Brains, Storytelling and, of Course, Zombies

This week has seen the publication of an exciting series of news stories and commentaries that provide a very timely opportunity to update six recent Subway Fold posts. The common thread running through the original posts and these new pieces is the highly inventive mixing, mutating and monetizing of pop culture and science. Please put on your virtual 3-D glasses let’s see what’s out there.

The December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market? explored the apps, companies and trends that have become the key drivers in the current global music business. Adding to the big data strategies and implementations for three more major music companies and their rosters of artists was a very informative report in the December 15, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Hannah Karp entitled Music Business Plays to Big Data’s Beat. (A subscription for the full text required a subscription to WSJonline.com, but the story also appeared in full on Nasdaq.com clickable here.) As described in detail in this report, Universal Music, Warner Music, and Sony Music have all created sophisticated systems to parse numerous data sources and apply customized analytics for planning and executing marketing campaigns.

Next for an alternative and somewhat retro approach, a veteran music retailer named Sal Nunziato wrote a piece on the Op Ed page of The New York Times on the very same day entitled Elegy for the ‘Suits’. He blamed the Internet more than the music labels for the current state of music where “anyone with a computer, a kazoo and an untuned guitar” can release their music  online regardless of its quality. Thus, the ‘suits’ he nostalgically misses were the music company execs who exerted  more controlled upon the quantity and quality of music available to the public.

Likewise covering the tuning up of another major force in today’s online music streaming industry was an August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology. This summarized a report about how deep learning technology was being successfully applied to improve the accuracy and responsiveness of Spotify’s recommendation engine. Presenting an even stronger case that you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet in this field was an engaging analysis of some still largely unseen developments in deep learning posted on December 15, 2014, on Gigaom.com entitled What We Read About Deep Learning is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by Derrick Harris. These include experimental systems being tested by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. As well, there were a series of intriguing presentations and demos at the recent Neural Information Processing Systems conference held in Montreal. As detailed here with a wealth of supporting links, many of these advanced systems and methods are expected to gain more press and publicity in 2015.

Returning to the here and now at end of 2014, the current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This fits right in with the developments covered in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Full Slate of Virtual Reality Movies and Experiences Scheduled at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as this short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience, continuing right along with the September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains, concerns a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

Of course, all movie making involves the art and science of storytelling skills as discussed in the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?. In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the basis for the November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

Finally, the best story told on TV during the 2014 season was – – in a fictional world where brains take on an entirely different significance – –  The Walking Dead on AMC in terms of the extraordinary number of tweets about ongoing adventures Sheriff Rick and the Grimes Gang. This was covered on Nielsen.com on December 15, 2014 in a post entitled Tops of 2014: Social TV.  TWD averaged twice as many tweets as its next competitor in the ongoing series category. This follows up directly with the July 31, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytical Twitter Traffic Report on US TV Shows During the 2013 – 2014 Season.  As I read scores of TWD tweets on the mid-season finale myself, everyone will miss you, Beth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As a major fan of TWD, I would like to take the opportunity add my own brief review about the tragic events in Episode 5.8:

I think that in the end, Beth was a form of avatar for the entire show. She traveled many miles from lying on her bed in Season 2 completely unable to function and progressing to Season 5 as a realist concerning herself and the group’s survival. Rather than resigning herself to be held a captive ward in the hospital, she was determined to escape no matter what and was so proud of helping Jonah to escape.

She awakened and arose to be a survivor and a committed member of the Grimes Gang, just as everyone else has done during the past five years. That is, Beth’s journey reflects the entire group’s journey. She, and the Grimes Gang, up to this point have survived all of the threats they faced and endured all of the horrors they have seen. They will all survive but this death with have more serious repercussions than perhaps any other death up until this point. Maggie, Daryl, Rick, Carol and Carl, the core of the GG, will not soon recover from this.

What I still do not understand is why, given that she was finally free in the hospital’s hallway, did she jeopardize her life by going after the lead officer with a scissors. It seemed to be somewhat at odds with Beth’s character as someone who had survived until now on her own determination and close bond with the group. She had nothing to gain by such a reckless act in the middle of a very volatile situation. Was it a sacrifice to save Jonah? Did she realize that the cop was holding a gun at that point? Was she just overtaken by the motivation that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures?

Consider, too, that she was Herschel’s daughter and her character reflected what she had learned from him: 1. Both learned to see things differently and adapted when the circumstances changed. 2. Both faced sacrifices and danger with great dignity. (Recall Herschel’s acknowledging grin towards Rick right before the Governor murdered the elder of the survivors, and then Beth’s defiant grin when she saw that Jonah had escaped.) 3. Both were resilient insofar as Herschel adapting to the loss of his leg and Beth recovering from her father’s murder. 4. Both sought to comfort others as Herschel stayed with the flu patients and Beth finally drew Daryl out about his terrible family life. Recall also, the three very effective times during her history on the show when Beth’s singing gave great comfort to the others. Indeed, she was a saintly figure but as this story arc wore on, her demise seemed to be foretold.

TWD remains, for me, an absolutely brilliant show in terms of its characters, narrative and presentation.