Virtual reality hasn’t changed the world the way its creators hoped — at least, not yet. But it’s gotten a lot of traction in a slightly unexpected place: film festivals. At last month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, curators featured nearly three dozen virtual and augmented reality experiences across three different tracks: a cinematic 360-degree video screening program, a “virtual arcade” with a variety of interactive and cinematic projects, and the long-running Storyscapes program that features ambitious virtual / physical installations.
Some of these projects will remain festival installations, but others are coming to home VR headsets. I got to see almost everything at this year’s Tribeca Immersive program, so here’s my favorite stuff.
Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow
Alt-rock band OK Go is known for its complex and geeky music videos, involving elaborate choreographed moves on a treadmill, in zero gravity, or around paper stacks from 567 printers. So it’s unsurprising that the band has been thinking about VR for a long time, but it decided that just making a music video in VR was not a good idea. “Being in an OK Go video is not as fun as watching,” says lead singer and music video director Damian Kulash. “What is the version of our thing — the joy you get from watching our videos? The closest we could come to it was if we could distill the fun part of creativity itself, specifically music-making.”
The result is Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow, a partnership between OK Go and VR artist Chris Milk’s studio Within. It’s an ecstatically weird shared VR world where two players compose a song through cartoon animals, a theme that was designed to shake people out of their assumptions about how to play music. Instead of writing out a chord progression, for instance, you squeeze pufferfish assigned to chords that range from most to least experimental. It’s an intricate project that feels almost overwhelming in a festival setting, where you’ve got a few minutes to explore a complicated system. But it’s being released to the public, where Kulash and Milk hope people will start using it as a real musical tool — not just a fun experience.
Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall
VR studio Penrose previewed Arden’s Wake at last year’s Tribeca, but it’s returned with a complete half-hour narrative set in a flooded far-future New York City. Arden’s Wake: Tide’s Fall is an animated coming-of-age story with a diorama-like style, following Penrose’s previous projects. You feel like an invisible giant watching a young woman (voiced by The Danish Girl’s Alicia Vikander) search for her father while being stalked by an eerie, ancient sea creature.
The piece doesn’t always gel for me. It whiplashes between sentimental fantasy and serious issues like addiction, and I’m not sure Penrose quite navigates the transition. But it’s one of the most creative and evocative pieces of cinematic VR I’ve seen to date, playing with basic visual elements like the scale of people and objects. It creates a world that I’d love to explore further, either inside or outside VR. According to Penrose co-founder Eugene Chung, that’s exactly the plan — although it hasn’t announced any new projects yet. Arden’s Wake hasn’t been publicly released yet, but Penrose’s previous projects have shown up on VR platforms like the Oculus Rift.
The Day The World Changed
After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, we entered an era in which humanity could destroy itself. Virtual reality artists Gabo Arora and Saschka Unseld return to 1945 in a multiperson experience on the HTC Vive, placing participants in a virtual re-creation of a ruined building with artifacts from the bombings. Survivors tell the stories behind the objects — a stopped watch, a lunch box — as you touch them with ghostly hands.
The Day the World Changed is notable not just for these stories, but for its dramatic visualizations of a world scarred by nuclear warfare. Test sites appear as parasitic black growths on a virtual globe that looks real enough to touch, producing smoky trails that threaten to overwhelm the planet. It moves seamlessly from the personal to the universal, using the medium’s sensory immersion to heighten the emotional impact. It’s a social experience that hasn’t made it out to the public, but it’s likely to keep appearing in art shows and festivals.
The premise of augmented reality experience Terminal 3 is similar to the video game Papers, Please. Participants play a customs officer interviewing Muslim travelers to the US, choosing between different questions using HoloLens’ voice recognition system. In Papers, Please, these interactions are cold, rushed, and impersonal. But in Terminal 3, they’re strangely humanizing. The interview subjects are recorded holograms of real people, and they respond to questions about their work, families, and religious beliefs with long and thoughtful answers. You can easily get drawn down a line of questioning that doesn’t feel like an interrogation at all.
Creator Asad Malik says the piece is based on his own experiences being repeatedly stopped and questioned at Customs. “By now, I’m a pro at being interrogated — and I kind of like it. It’s a weird guilty pleasure, because you have this trained person who’s being paid to listen to you and explore your story and take notes,” he says. In Terminal 3, “you can choose to be very authoritarian and challenge this person, or you can choose to just get to know them,” says Malik. “I’ve met interrogators who really just get to know you and enjoy your story.” Since it’s a HoloLens project, it’s not widely available, but you might be able to catch it at an event in the future.
Campfire Creepers: The Skull of Sam
Director Alexandre Aja doesn’t think being “really there” is essential to good VR horror — in fact, sometimes you don’t want horror to feel too realistic. Aja, who previously directed High Tension and the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, brought two installments of his new Campfire Creepers anthology to Tribeca. “When we started Campfire Creepers, one of the things that attracted me and, I think, Oculus was the fact that we were in a very comfortable place: summer camp, campfire, going back to the Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt type of very simple story with monsters,” he says. “With VR, when it’s really well-made, the ultimate goal is like — you feel like you are not watching it, but you actually have that memory of something that really happened to you. And I think people will be a little cautious and be a little worried to dive into something very, very traumatizing.”
The Skull of Sam, which is about libidinous teens making bad decisions with gory consequences, is by far the stronger of the two Campfire Creepers installments. It strikes the classic horror balance of telling a basically predictable story with a sufficiently weird and grotesque payoff, with a focus on body horror that pays off well in a headset’s sensory deprivation environment. It’s also available right now on the Oculus Rift and Gear VR’s video apps.