Step Out of This World

Virtual reality is one of the newest obsessions of creatives. As an artist and musician who has also studied 3D computer animation, I am very interested in the new multi-sensual possibilities that virtual reality creates.  It was interesting to attend a talk by Jessica Brillhart, the principal VR filmmaker for Google, as she gave food for thought from the perspective of the creator, rather than the user. As well as reiterating that every single frame and angle is a window into the created world, Brillhart expressed an added challenge of storytelling in VR: determining where the viewer will be looking and trying to steer them in the direction of the main action. She also highlighted the fact that the user is not simply a viewer, but a visitor in the virtually created world.

Over the past year, I have been excitedly trying out different VR experiences at various conferences and events. Having previously tested a few fighting games as well as the artistic tilt brush by Google (which you can read about here), I have been keen to try out other realities that differ from these. The Realities+D room at Sónar+D Music, Creativity and Technology conference in Barcelona offered a wide selection of this year’s most innovative audiovisual virtual realities. Here are two that I tried out:

The Melody of Dust by Viacom NEXT & Hot Sugar:

Although confusing at first, this experience is incredible. The user wears a kind of backpack that carries the vibrations of the bass, as well as two hand held remote controls, headphones and of course, the VR headset. The first scene the user sees is a large, high ceilinged castle room with a large, angular fountain in the middle. An electricity ball is laying on a pillar nearby. Once the user works out how to grab it and throw it into the fountain, a repetitive sounds begins as the ball becomes trapped in a repetitive flying loop around the fountain.

A set of double doors then open and the user is able to walk into a lavishly decorated bedroom. There is a surprising amount of detail in this immersive, computer generated environment. Every object in the room (wine goblets, nail polish, champagne bottles, vases, cushions etc.) makes a noise when the user picks it up. As the user throws each object onto the fountain, they also begin to swirl around in the air, creating additional layers of sound, which collectively makes music. As more objects are added to the mix, the bass kicks in and the user is able to feel those deep vibrations all through their body, sourced from the backpack.

It is the most transporting experience, and being able to literally walk around the castle, move objects and not only hear but also see and feel the music, it is more than easy to forget a real world exists beyond the VR goggles. Once all the objects are in the fountain, they continue swirling around, getting higher and higher until the entire scene begins to shift. The structure of the castle morphs, geometrically moving apart and if the user looks down, they would see the ground beneath them disappearing down into a dark abyss. Huge sculptures of hands appear next to the remaining walls, wiggling their giant fingers in time with the music. As the piece of music reaches its climax, the visual scene has quite a trippy ending. The overall experience is completely other-worldly.

Under Cracked Ice by the New York Times:

In a contrast to computer generated images, this experience is the first one I have tried that is actually real-life footage. It is essentially a 360° documentary that takes the user on the journey with the narrators. Three divers including the user begin in a room with a hole in the floor, which they can look down to see an additional hole drilled through the surface layer of Antarctic ice, reaching right through to the clear water underneath. After jumping down the hole as one of the divers, the user swims along under the ice whilst listening to the other divers discuss the nature all around them, such as the seabed creatures, icy stalactites and the magnificent seals moving gracefully through the water.

Being in the clearest waters on Earth, the video is absolutely beautiful , with white light from the icy ceiling creating gradients of the purest ocean blue. Despite the quality of the video still being more of a 90s standard, it is a spectacular feeling to be able to view the entire environment, as if you were actually swimming there. The 2D video is available to watch here.

This made me wonder about the future of VR. Will the elderly, disabled or people restricted for some other reason use this to experience parts of the world they cannot visit? Once the technology is perfected and the quality of the video reaches high definition, it would be as good as the real experience for practically all the senses. Equally, once VR becomes accessible and affordable for the general public, how will this change society? It is easy for many people to become addicted to video games as it is, but virtual reality brings a whole other dimension with the possibility of full immersion into another world. Every time I have been in an experience, I have lost complete track of time and awareness of my real-life surroundings. It could be the ultimate escape from worldly problems, but could potentially be very dangerous.

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