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?

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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.

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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.