It’s easy to get distracted by the vast potential of extended reality (XR) to take us to the brand new worlds, taking away any remnant of the environment around us and completely immersing ourselves in otherwise impossible surroundings. Perhaps, this is why the focus of so many experiences is exactly that: doing the impossible.
You might think that immersing people completely would allow for unlimited creativity, and that would be a logical conclusion to make. However, in my experience, the opposite is somewhat true.
While XR is a powerful medium that grows in potential with every iteration, there are some things that technology cannot recreate yet. We are seeing an increase in the number of complex experiences that do not cut off our senses entirely, but manipulate them, adding pieces of mundane reality to enhance the experience.
XR events and film festivals are a chance to experience some of the most unique and creative experiences from the world’s best XR directors. If we examine a few examples from last year, a definite pattern quickly becomes obvious.
Raindance Film Festival
I had the pleasure of speaking with the creators and trying one of the following examples at the Raindance Film Festival, XR strand, last fall. On “Kassinn (A Box in the Desert)”, the Icelandic venture from the company Huldufugl, the user is confined to a physical space that he sees even without the glasses.
He is then challenged by two conflicting voices, including a live performance of the character of the “Guardian” that inhabits the same virtual space using multiplayer networking. This means that the actor in a separate room will react to what happens in each case. The experience is tailored to the user’s actions. Their hesitations to do as told by each of the voices, their reactions to their calls, shape the experience and define the ending. Ástþór Ágústsson, Nanna Gunnars and Owen Hindley made sure to create an immersive world where you are faced with the consequences of your actions in real time.
Luxembourg Film Festival
I was able to experience Satore Studio’s extremely ambitious “Cosmos within us” by Tupac Martir. Again, you have only one user wearing the goggles and a live narrator. But this time, they do not share the same virtual space: the narrator is an omnipresent voice.
Martir hits the user and around 10 audience members (which has already grown to over 100 at the Eye Filmmuseum presentation) with a full orchestra and shadowmen that perform a flourishing dance while blending in the background, moving chairs, waving you with smells and fans to ensure you feel like you are in the middle of the scene.
As a member of the audience, you get to watch the visuals from the glasses through a screen, as defined by the user, who decides where to look and move. It is astonishing to be able to see one person going through the journey, while you can also immerse yourself in their experience and feel part of the universe.
Sundance Film Festival
Moving on to Sundance’s presentations earlier this year, there are two experiences that fit this pattern of increasing sense stimulation.
Take “Spaced out” by Pierre “Pyaré” Friquet, using the world’s first Aquatic VR headset (created by Ballast Technologies), the French digital artist literally submerges the user in water to experience the change of gravity through space. Pyaré takes you on a trip to the moon, heavily inspired by Georges Méliés film “A Trip to the moon”, along with audio recordings from Neil Armstrong in NASA Apollo 11.
Another example is K’ARTS’ “Scarecrow”, which according to Sundance’s synopsis is a “one-on-one VR immersive theatre piece [that] converges gaming, thermal haptic, dance, and painting”. As you help the characters presented to you, one of them is an actual flesh and bone actor standing beside you, who will guide you and physically interact with you. On top of the changes from hot to cold of the haptic gloves you are wearing, the real scarecrow will dance with you, touch you and even hug you.
What we can see here is an increasing amount of intimacy in the direct interaction between user and experience. From live narrators, to fresh baked cookies handed to you as a virtual Grandmother comforts you with a reassuring pat on the shoulder, to a sweeping dance and a hug, creators are bringing more and more humanity into play.
Smell, taste, touch: when you add these to the visual realities that VR can provide you, the possibilities are endless. These VR experiences can only be fulfilled with a live performance, be it a solo actor or a big orchestra, they need the real time human factor. Which brings us to XR.
No, not AR. Because here you are adding layers to the virtual reality world you have created and not directly juxtaposing elements onto reality itself.
Here, the logic is in reverse. We are working from a base virtual universe and adding bits and pieces of reality (big or small, live sound or submersion in water) to create a more compelling and immersive experience.
It is also a big step towards a viable monetisation of XR experiences. When you bring in an audience, the number of tickets exponentiates drastically. Compare the two first examples: “Kassinn (A Box in the Desert)” allowed a person every 20 minutes, while “Cosmos within Us” allowed one user, plus X audience members every 40 minutes.
This opens the possibility of longer experiences without loss of profit or visibility. As we know this last aspect is crucial when a project is doing the festival circuit. If you manage to make it possible for more people to experience your work, even at different levels (main user versus audience) you get a much larger turn out and, let’s face it, become much more appealing for festival commissioners.
The Future of Virtual Experiences
Right now, in this lockdown world, these kinds of experiences are on hold meaning that we are turning once again towards purely virtual universes. Nonetheless, we cannot underestimate the value of those additions, now more than ever. The simple idea of hugging a loved one can be a challenging one right now, which makes us crave the human factor even more.
As a result, I believe that creators and users will be looking forward to those immersive experiences in the future. Not only because of the enhanced narrative and emotional power, nor the monetisation and increased commerciality of the projects, but because they will answer our pilling need for human interaction. May the change in immersive storytelling continue!