Ready to jump off a virtual cliff?
The wait to experience the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier installations on Main Street, at times, exceeded three hours. There was a similar rush at Samsung’s GearVR Theater at the corner of Heber Avenue and Main Street and the Treachery of Solitude tent on Swede Alley, where eager festival goers lined up to get in on the latest craze: virtual reality.
To put it simply, virtual reality refers to various video formats that, when coupled with other emerging technologies (3D goggles, surround sound and laser sensors, for example), give audiences the sense that they have stepped through the screen they are watching and into a vivid story landscape.
Nested in dark alcoves on the second and third floors of the historic Claim Jumper building another sort of history was being made. Artists from around the world unpacked an assortment of computers, laser sensors, screens and props and by the time the festival opened they were ready to show their mysterious wares to the public.
In a tiny room, viewers were invited to perch on metal stools and peer through VR goggles at a 3D video of a small family trapped in an underground bomb shelter. The seats vibrated as rockets seemed to explode overhead and participants were encouraged to turn and look around as the aftershocks toppled toys and provisions off the shelter’s shelves behind and beside them.
Milica Zec, one of the artists who created the exhibit, said it was based on her experiences growing up in war torn Serbia. Her hope, she said, is that virtual reality installations like hers can be used to influence international policymakers by giving them a more visceral sense of the effects of their decisions. "I am an idealist," she said.
In another space, visitors held onto a computer tablet and, with the help of a set of VR goggles and headphones, guided a whale that seemed to float off the screen. The project’s creative director, Alex McDowell of 5D Global Studio, described it as "spherical storytelling."
Toward the middle of the space, strangers huddled together on foam block while immersed in disparate worlds. At one end of the makeshift couch, a headset-clad viewer watched "Viens!" a sensual intertwining of human figures, at the other end a viewer was busy reaching out to "touch" a nesting sea turtle emerging from a sandy mound.
Around the corner from the whale, pairs of VR adventurers were outfitted with laser sensors on their hands and feet, along with space suit-like backpacks and virtual reality goggles. They were then instructed to locate crystals needed to power their space pod.
To those still waiting in line for their turns at Sylvain Chague and Caecilia Charbonnier’s "Real Virtuality," the inexperienced space travelers looked like drunken sailors, stumbling across the limited floor space, but those wearing the magic helmets were actually trying to climb through a series of dystopian caverns, convincing enough to make them trip over "virtual" obstacles.
The pair are co-founders of Artanim, a Swiss company that is developing VR technologies for, among other uses, orthopedic and sports medicine.
Even after the opening weekend the New Frontier exhibits attracted big crowds, but, it seemed, people weren’t discouraged from signing up.
Panelists discuss ways to make VR more convincing
Last Sunday, as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section, film and video game experts packed into an auditorium at the Gateway Center to talk about how VR technology can be incorporated into filmmaking and lots of other forms of entertainment. Participants included aspiring VR artists, videographers, hardware geeks and their mentors who were plotting ways to make the experience even more real.
When the moderator asked, "How many of you are familiar with VR," more than half of the hands shot up. "Wow, that’s a lot more than last year," she said.
The panel, hosted by Sundance, was led by a Who’s Who of leaders in the growing field of virtual and augmented reality hardware and software including representatives from Lucasfilm, Oculus, PlayStation DAQRI and Laser Feast. But even they admitted that some of the hype surrounding virtual reality has gotten ahead of the technology.
According to Diana Williams of Lucasfilm Story Group and ILMxLab, "The challenge we are running into is that people are putting on the headsets and expecting to sit down in the Falcon and talk to Han Solo. That technology does NOT exist yet."
She is right. After waiting in those long lines during the amped up first weekend of Sundance, some returned from their maiden VR voyages with motion sickness and wondering what all the fuss was about. Others, though, were hooked and quickly queued up for the next Sundance VR adventure.
Jason Rubin of Oculus said he wants to find a way to give users the sensation of weight when they, for instance, virtually cast a fly rod.
Gaia Dempsey of DAQRI said she is looking forward to seeing the development of higher quality optics and finding more ways to work VR into the "factory of the future." In particular, she said, VR has already become an effective tool for hands on training.
New optical tracking and rendering software "will have huge applications in that realm," she said.
Those comments weren’t lost on Richard Marks who directs PlayStation Magic Lab and sees a slightly different application for those technologies. PlayStation is coming out with a VR headset this year which, he said, will take video gaming to a new level
Ready to try it at home?
If you weren’t able to get into the New Frontier venue during Sundance, it is surprisingly easy and affordable to experience virtual reality on your own. You just need a viewer and a handful of mobile apps.
The least expensive viewers are made by Google Cardboard or DoDo Case and both are available on Amazon for around $10. There is also a little fold-up set of lenses from Homido that sells for $15. The resolution offered by these inexpensive toys may be grainy, but the experience still elicits wows from the uninitiated. The next step up is to invest in a set of Oculus or Samsung Gear goggles that range from $99 to $600. Many of the more expensive viewers are made for specific types of cell phones and may be Android or Apple specific, so choose carefully.
Then go to the Apple app store or Google Play and search for VR apps. There are lots to choose from and they range in subject matter from nature documentaries to science fiction. Try NYTVR and VRSE for a few samples.
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The film captures a transparent self-portrait of the American wilderness, emphasizing the importance of communication that goes beyond listening for the sake of responding.