Virtual reality has been on the cusp for decades, but many in the tech industry touted 2016 as the year VR finally arrived. Multiple consumer headsets were released, billions of dollars were invested, and more media companies experimented with VR content. One widely circulated industry projection predicted VR and AR (augmented reality) revenues of $150 billion by 2020.
Right now, however, that hype seems overblown. The technology is still clunky, many VR systems remain prohibitively expensive, and headset sales have been less than impressive. One major obstacle to mainstream adoption of VR is that there currently isn’t enough compelling content to make the high prices and frequently buggy technology worthwhile for most consumers. Creators, manufacturers, and audiences are all still trying to understand what, exactly, VR is for.
At Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier, a showcase for work “at the forefront of art and technology,” creators are attempting to answer this question in different ways, introducing both new technologies and new approaches to storytelling. Several projects at New Frontier highlighted the potential of social experiences and content creation.
These functions have been under-explored in VR so far, largely as a result of the technology’s newness—creators are still figuring out how to handle basic issues like motion sickness and interaction cues. But shared experiences, and the ability for users to create their own works, may prove to be key affordances of the medium.
Oculus Story Studio’s “Dear Angelica” is an intimate and visually stunning animated story about a girl’s relationship with her movie star mother, immersing viewers in intimate memories and fantastical movie scenes. It’s the first animated project created entirely in VR—illustrator Wesley Allsbrook painted each scene by hand using Oculus’ Quill platform. The result is a magical experience in which elaborate 3D illustrations take shape around the viewer, brushstroke by brushstroke. The illustrations unfold, shrink, and expand to underscore emotional beats, creating a dramatic sense of wonder and offering a VR-specific approach to shaping narrative. “For the first time, it feels like there’s a story flow that feels natural to VR,” said the film’s director, Saschka Unseld.
With “Dear Angelica,” Oculus is also positioning VR as a medium for content creation. Oculus’ drawing program Quill, developed in conjunction with the film, was released in December alongside the company’s Touch motion controllers. Now Oculus is working with comic book artists to develop a wider array of features, including tools to tell sequential stories. Unseld and his team believe that Quill will allow more people to create their own VR narratives, without a support team of programmers and engineers.
“Mindshow,” from the studio Visionary VR, is another project attempting to democratize VR content creation. Currently still in alpha, the platform allows users to create and star in their own VR movies. In the project demo, users act out a scene as a cartoon alien menacing a cowering astronaut. Participants control their character’s facial expression using a digital dial, but for the most part they simply act using their voice and body, with the HTC Vive functioning as a basic motion-capture rig. After participating in the scene from the alien’s point of view, viewers can watch their performance, switch roles, and send their creation to a friend or share it on social media.
“Mindshow” aims to be a collaborative platform for interactive filmmaking: an editing program, movie set, and motion capture studio all in one, accessible from your living room. While the project currently only allows users to act out a limited number of scenes, additional features and customization are in development. The creative team envisions users adding on to and remixing each other’s stories in a social and improvisational process. “The really big story of the next decade is going to be the creative-collaborative potential opened up by this medium,” said Visionary VR co-founder and CCO Jonnie Ross.
Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin’s “Life of Us” also explores the communal and creative possibilities of VR. The project is designed for groups of two or four. While each person is physically in a separate room, the participants can all see and speak to each other in the project’s virtual space. Together, they experience a whimsical journey of evolution, their virtual bodies changing from protozoa to gorillas to robots. Users are encouraged to communicate with each other in order to discover new interactive elements in each stage.
Experiencing VR can be isolating—VR showcases often consist of dark rooms full of people in headsets sitting by themselves. In “Life of Us,” Milk and Koblin highlight the potential of shared VR experiences. Participants, their voices digitally altered to match each scene, urge each other to explore their new virtual bodies and environments. The silly cartoon voices and giddy sense of collective exploration encourage users to embrace the playful nature of the experience. And after participants complete their journey, they can watch it projected outside the installation, together with people waiting their turn.
There were plenty of other exciting trends at New Frontier, including augmented and mixed reality projects and physical installations setting the scene for VR experiences. Among the array of VR experiences, Dear Angelica, Mindshow, and Life of Us make a compelling argument for social interaction and accessible content creation—and the collaboration, shared discovery, and creative play they enable—as key components of the future of VR.
Sue Ding is a documentary filmmaker and a researcher at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.