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SXSW: 5 Masterful XR Experiences That Prove the Future of the Art Form Has Arrived

From immersive theater to improvised music, this year's interactive experiences showcase the eclectic nature of an emerging media.

“On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)”

While the 2022 edition of SXSW found audiences returning to theaters, many of the XR projects in the festival brought people to their feet. The 30 “XR Experience” projects programmed this year surfaced in a section previously known as “Virtual Cinema,” and the change makes sense: They’re so defined by their own terms that the word “cinema” simply doesn’t cut it. 

Instead, they demonstrate the range of aesthetic possibilities in the XR space. For emerging media newbies, “XR” refers to a spectrum of cutting-edge technology these days that includes AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and MR (mixed reality). For years, festival programming has provided a platform for the immersive possibilities of the medium. However, the SXSW lineup provided a particularly eclectic range of masterful work that proved the future of the art form has arrived. These experiences utilized their media to such a confident degree that they didn’t seem like experimental stunts so much as full-fledged embodiments of creative ambition. 

Many of the 30 projects in the program were available remotely, but several were unique in-person experiences that required participation at the expo setup that took place over the first weekend of the festival at the Fairmont Hotel. Many of these pieces were defined by their participatory elements. While the longest lines may have been for Megan Thee Stallion’s seven-minute “Hottieverse” performance, which this writer chose to skip, celebrity gimmicks took a back seat to more imaginative feats from around the world. Here are five highlights.

“On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)” 

The winner of this year’s XR competition (co-produced by ARTE, BFI, and Meta) completes a project that premiered its first chapter at the virtual edition of Sundance earlier this year. An immersive 360 VR documentary by five creators, “On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)” looks back on the moment in January 2018 when an emergency SMS went out to everyone in Hawai’i telling them to brace for an imminent ballistic missile attack.

While that warning wound up being a mistake, the ensuing panic and existential dread provides a starting point for this remarkable plunge into the invisible nature of living under threat of nuclear annihilation. The filmmakers blend voiceover interviews and vibrational cues with glowing particle animations and holographic superimpositions of real people to create a first-person look at the mindset of island residents as they reflect on the experience. 

Each chapter brings us closer to the moment of dread caused by the sudden text, with audio of desperate 911 calls and recollections of the psychological toll residents experienced in the moment. The documentary veers from meditations on Hiroshima to broader explanations about the even more destructive potential of modern-day nuclear technology that turn this bizarre story in the harrowing context it deserves. But “On the Morning You Wake” is informative as well: Expert voices weigh in, including Daniel Ellsberg, who points out the eerie parallel between the world’s lack of preparation for the pandemic and its current inability to brace for the doomsday scenario. 

At one point, we witness a spinning globe with individual points demonstrating the placement of nuclear sites come to life. These shocking illustrations strike a powerful contrast with the intimacy of the lives on the island at the center of the drama. The result is a riveting plunge into the fragility of everyday life in a society at the mercy of unseen threats. The third chapter takes on an activist bent as it makes an environmentalist case for fighting against our nuke-ready society by positioning the viewer in the midst of a circle alongside the documentary’s subjects. It’s an idealistic note in dreary times, but one that has a rousing quality as the VR technology puts you at the center of a problem that can only be solved through collective action. 

“Gumball Dreams”

“Gumball Dreams”

Last year, VR outfit The Ferryman Collective delivered the award-winning immersive theater piece “The Severance Theory,” a live play built in VRchat that found audiences interacting with live performers in a touching story about mental health. Now, the team has delivered a more imaginative project about the nature of mortality and lifelong dreams, and laced it together with psychedelic puzzles, a surreal landscape, and a playful sense of mystery. Directed by Deirdre V. Lyons with a world and animation by Christopher Lane Davis, “Gumball Dreams” plays like Fellini by way of Dalí with a dash of “2001” for good measure, and it’s a total blast all the way through.

The project finds audience members in avatar form interacting with a dying alien named Onyx, who sits atop a throne on a giant gumball machine as she assigns various tasks to participants. My own group experience with two others found me traveling to various rooms to solve puzzles while Onyx (the sole actor in the show, a rotating performer who voices one other character) engaged in a private conversation about emotional desires with the remaining participant. That sequence gave way to a trippy climax in which Onyx took us through a brilliant labyrinth of kaleidoscopic colors as she discussed her desire to make peace with life. With time, the absurdity of the setting melts away to sheer awe as the story builds to a bittersweet finale. It’s a wondrous example of immersive VR theater with the ability to engage audiences in the logic of its own homegrown universe.

“Goliath: Playing with Reality”

“Goliath: Playing with Reality”

A hit on the European circuit last fall, “Goliath” made its North American debut at SXSW, and it was worth the wait. Tilda Swinton narrates director Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla’s 25-minute VR exploration of an orphaned child diagnosed with schizophrenia. Blending interactive cues with 3D animation, the innovative documentary shows how the man begins to make sense out of the world through videogames, and uses a self-reflective approach VR medium to illustrate the inward nature of schizophrenia. Sitting there with a headset watching the main character’s story unfold, you’re literally inside his mind, incapable of interacting with the outside world — just like the protagonist. 

In addition to the colorful animation, the filmmakers use a series of interactive tools to bring you closer to the drama at hand, including a recording of your own voice that personalizes the story, and an arcade sequence that beautifully illustrates the way the character sees the obstacles of his everyday life in terms of the only medium at his disposal. Though his story finds him incarcerated at a psychiatric hospital and alienated from the world, “Goliath” ultimately builds to a beautiful sense of catharsis by translating internal psychological experiences into relatable ones.

As Swinton intones by the end: “All realities are imagined. It’s the ones we share that endure.” By turns gripping, sad, and poignant, it’s one of the great moving image attempts to understand mental illness from the inside out. (Now available to headset owners on the Oculus store for free.)

“Future Rites”

Though still in prototype mode at this year’s festival, “Future Rites” marks the latest effort to apply VR technology to live dance, and it’s a welcome one. On a certain level, the project recalls Sundance’s “Cosmogany,” a dazzling 30-minute piece that found a handful of dancers wearing mocap suits as they shapeshifted and multiplied across settings that transcended space and time. However, “Future Rites” takes a more personal route by involving a single audience member in a dance performance of “Rite of Spring.” 

Co-created by choreographer Alexander Whitley and director Sandra Rodriguez, the project finds an audience member wearing a Quest headset as they’re encircled by a dancer engaged in a blend of choreographed and improvised dance moves. Adorned in Perception Neuron trackers from head to toe, the dancer’s movements are beamed into a VR environment that the audience member witnesses as fantastical beings dancing around them in a mysterious landscape. The dancer and a nearby virtual stage director add details to the dancer’s virtual rendition in real time to reflect the movements of the audience member. I found myself wandering amongst strange forest creatures and towering monstrosities that shrunk to minuscule critters over the course of a 10-minute sampling that was certainly unlike any ballet performance I’ve ever encountered before, in part because I’ve never danced along. 

The artists are planning a final version of “Future Rites” that encompasses the entire 35-minute ballet — and while it’s hard to imagine any neophyte dancer keeping up with the movements for that long, after this memorable performance, I’m up for giving it a try. As with “Gumball Dreams,” this was another impressive illustration of the way VR is creating a whole new market for the performing arts, and it’s just getting started. 

“Composition”

This mixed reality project was probably the most accessible of the XR works on display this year, and one of the more inventive ways to include multiple participants for an in-person experience. Creator Vincent Morisset has built a small black room where two people stand on opposite ends of a small white table adorned with wooden cubes, each of which has a range of faces drawn on them. When you start moving the faces, corresponding music plays in headphones, as radial projection on the table changes in real time based on the movements of the cubes. 

That setup turns the participants into a free-roaming deejays as they improvise a six-minute musical piece while gazing at visuals that elicit a wide range of emotions. The playacting can lead to stirring results: Move a sad-faced cube to the corner of the table by itself and watch as white lights illuminate its solitude; turn it over to a less somber expression and move it to a more crowded part of the table and the audiovisual mood becomes more festive. This dizzying, unclassifiable experience shows the potential of crafting a new musical language as a form of communication, and it’s so immersive on these terms that it could just as easily run twice as long.

As a site-specific installation, it has a lot of potential to tour around, and bring another layer of ingenuity in the XR space to satisfied participants even if they know nothing about the field. That’s the ultimate coup that more creators should consider as the medium continues to take exciting steps forward.

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