Sundance Report: Improved Virtual Reality Films Take Viewers Around the World (and Galaxy)

On Friday morning, I walked up the steps of a quiet storefront in the snowy resort town of Park City, Utah. A few minutes later, I was following a violin player through massive churches, grand concert halls, and idyllic farmland. Then, I suddenly found myself aboard a sky tram traveling across the skyline of a massive Chinese city, which somehow deposited me on the sand of an exotic, faraway beach. After I ate a snack, my adventure continued, with an itinerary that included the battlefields of World War I, a women’s health clinic, and, finally, the desert planet of Jakku.

The Sundance Film Festival has long been on the cutting edge of indie film, and this year’s 10th iteration of its forward-looking New Frontier program is focused on the burgeoning field of virtual reality. VR has been buzzed about on and off since the ‘90s, but over the last several years, the emergence of consumer products such as the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard has brought the technology closer to a viable storytelling medium.

There were several variants on display on Friday. Here are some of the event’s highlights:

Google Cardboard: A basic hardware combination made of a cardboard mask and Android cell phone, it is already being used for niche projects and marketing experiments, making it the most accessible iteration of VR currently available. Google was on hand to show two films by director Jessica Brillhart, which were really more like 360-degree video experiences. Resonance follows the violinist, who plays his way through various real-world settings. World Tour is exactly what its title promises, sending viewers to different and exotic locales around the globe.

The potential of this tech is twofold: It can transport a viewer anywhere, and can allow for more immersive and detailed storytelling. But other than the ability to look all around — no small thrill — there’s not much interaction with the screen. As filmmakers find ways to stitch together larger and larger environments, though, it could become the go-to for virtual tourism.

You can check the 360 videos on YouTube, below:

The Leviathan Project: A fascinating experiment by Intel and USC’s World Building Media Lab, this project mixes what is known as augmented reality with full-fledged virtual reality. They are working on technology that analyzes a space and then, on a video screen, displays extra information and visual enhancements. In this case, we saw a giant whale swimming in three dimensions across the room. Alex McDowell, a long-time production designer (Minority Report) and professor at USC, suggested that the future could find users interacting with movie characters.

More impressive, though, was their Oculus-powered interactive space. The film, based on a hit novel by Scott Westerfield, is animated, with CGI graphics befitting an early PlayStation game. But it was the immersion that was the selling point. Users, wearing the Oculus headgear and motion-sensor gloves, were instructed to walk around the virtual room and pick up objects to complete different scientific tasks. The physical display had several green-painted objects covered in different sensors, and on the Oculus screen, they appeared vibrant, detailed, and colorful.

While it holds great promise for the future of entertainment — imagine being able to help shape the plot of a movie — it was impossible to not think of it as a potential tool for even greater ends, like, for example, training doctors.

Planned Parenthood: The women’s healthcare organization teamed up with VR filmmakers to marry 360-degree video and digitally rendered environments. It opens with a woman in a doctor’s office, discussing her decision to have an abortion. Though she’s firm on her decision, she admits to having been shaken up by the anti-choice protesters outside the facility.

The film, called Across the Line, then rewinds to 20 minutes prior, and follows the patient and her friend driving into the office complex, where they are assaulted by protesters hurling violent speech and touting graphic banners. The footage used in the film was captured at actual protests outside Planned Parenthood offices, the knowledge of which makes the experience even more harrowing.

The CGI element also focuses on the protesters. Once the patient gets out of the car, the viewer is put into her shoes as she tries to walk to the building; the characters become CGI, but are rendered relatively well; there is no uncanny valley when you’re being screamed at and told you’re going to invoke God’s wrath.

Planned Parenthood is planning on releasing a version of this film on the Valve Steam gaming system, as well as for Google Cardboard. There are also plans to have pop-up events to give people the richest possible experience of terror.

Star Wars: Lucasfilm’s ILMX Lab has long been experimenting with augmented reality, having used it to help plan out films and sets for years. Rob Bredow, the VP for ILM’s advanced development group, gave Yahoo a walk-through of the technology, which is now being developed for various commercial uses.

Utilizing several high-powered video projectors, the ILM technicians were able to transform a meeting room into Jakku, the desert planet at the center of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. C-3PO and BB-8 were there, too. They became 3D and very lifelike to a viewer wearing motion-sensor glasses, and if they had turned up the heat in the room, you could have believed that you were hanging out amid the bones of old Star Destroyers.

With the use of a control tablet, the experience is even more immersive. Bredow said that they were able to render CGI versions of prospective sets for Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, who would then use a tablet to preview what it would look like from different camera angles and with different lenses. He was able to better customize his set that way, and save a whole lot of money, too. Practical effects, with a big digital assist.

Bredow noted that ILM has already rolled out a few Star Wars-related VR experiences, including a Google Cardboard-enabled hunt across Jakku that was featured on the Star Wars smartphone app. But in a few years, he envisions the public enjoying both large immersive displays, as well as gorgeous enhanced reality via their own devices.

None of the VR that Yahoo saw on Friday, outside of the Google Cardboard adventures, seemed fully ready for public consumption. But given the leaps that have been made in just the last few years, it doesn’t seem all that far off, either.