Loren Hammonds, programmer of The Tribeca Film Festival’s Immersive Arcade, travels the world to find the best, most compelling XR (VR, AR and everything in between) experiences to present at the annual event, which runs through May 5 at 50 Varick St. in lower Manhattan. The Immersive Arcade itself has become a themed attraction, with VR experiences presented in theatrically themed rooms, making each of them a once-in-a-lifetime presentation. Those experiences that eventually make it to public platforms like Steam will not have the same context they have at Tribeca.
This year’s crop of twenty-two VR experiences may be the best yet, with almost everything earning an honorable mention, even the two things we didn’t get to see. Over the past four years, we’ve attended Tribeca Immersive, we’ve seen enormous growth in quality, the result of more experienced makers working with better tools. Although the industry has yet to achieve commercial scale with consumers (it will, we just don’t know when) artists are showing us the vast possibilities and undeniable power of this new medium.
This year, we’ve singled out four experiences that are must-see should you be lucky enough to attend The Tribeca Film Festival’s Immersive Arcade: War Remains, Bonfire, Wolves in the Walls, and Gymnasia.
Fable Studios’ Wolves in the Walls: It’s All Over and Baobab Studios’ introduce us to AI driven characters far beyond what we see in even the most advanced video games. We develop an empathetic relationship with them.
In Baobab Studio’s director, Eric Darnell has created a sentient alien pet who reacts to the users’ actions. Ali Wong voices your robot sidekick and explainer, Debbie. As always, Baobab’s Disney-like animation brings the spark of life to robots and aliens alike. The use of AI is much more subtle and virtually invisible in Fable Studios’ Wolves in the Wall. Lucy, the heroine, creates an imaginary friend (you, the viewer) and draws you into her world. There is a third part to this dark fairy tale (based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean) which has not yet been completed. The piece was directed by Pete Billington and Jessica Shamash, who had worked at Pixar and the late Oculus Story Studio with Fable’s founder and Studio Head Ed Saatchi.
War Remains by Dan Carlin and MWM Immersive places us in the trenches of World War I in a unique location-based free roam VR experience. Guests put on a backpack PC and, using the Vive Pro’s extended room scale tracking, navigate stinking trenches, dead bodies, and attacking tanks. Props like dead bodies and the sandbags that line the walls are registered to the simulation so when you reach out and touch them, they feel real. The illusion is powerful. It’s a good thing this amazing piece is only ten minutes long because no one would want to occupy that hellscape for much longer, though soldiers endured it for years. Virtual time travel using VR is going to be one of the medium’s strongest genres.
Felix and Paul Studios, working with co-directors Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski of Clyde Henry Productions, created an evocative reminiscence in Gymnasia. This is also presented as a themed attraction. One of the demented dolls in the VR experience rolls through a room littered with sheet music where people are waiting to don a headset and begin the experience. The National Film Board of Canada (you know, the country in the northern hemisphere that supports the arts) was also responsible for the creation of the piece.
Also Awesome are these notable experiences that also have our highest recommendation. Dr. Who: The Runaway, Ayahuasca, and Future Dreaming. Dr. Who: The Runaway is written and produced by the BBC and directed by Mattias Chelebourg. His triumphant and masterful mixed reality experience, Jack, was the most awesome experience in last years Arcade (White Helmetsand Arden’s Wake were the others).
To make Dr. Who, Cheleborg, working from the BBC’s script, used motion capture of a single continuous fifteen-minute take of the series’ new star, Jodie Whittaker, to make a dimensional animated character strikingly real. The piece captures Dr. Who’s frantic energy and theatricality in a way that honors the franchise. For theming, the BBC thoughtfully provided Dr. Who’s iconic call-box.
Cave, co-created by Kris Layng, Sebastian Hersher, and Ken Perlin, directed by Layng with technology by Hersher, is a noteworthy animated piece that solves a throughput problem which plagues location-based VR: too few seats Saturday night, too many seats the rest of the time. Instead of one person in a VR experience, sixteen people sit in a tiny theater. The technology that enables the larger audience size and allows them to see one another in the simulation is called Parallux. [Ed note: you can read more about them here.] Cave transports the audience to the Ice Age & transforms them into “spirit ancestors,” sitting next to one another watching the new Shaman in the light of the fire. The project originated in Perlin’s Future Reality Lab at NYU.
Ayahuasca places you in a psychedelic native ritual in the Amazon, and certainly induced a trance-like “trip.” The design was striking (snakes don’t bother us). The experience unfolded effortlessly. It felt intuitively right, like all great art.
Many thanks to Fred Volhuer and Atlas V for putting me in touch with my inner Carlos Castaneda and reminding me of why we did those things in the 70s. Tribeca patrons can just go to the hut at the end of the hall, next to War Remains. No need to trek into the Amazon jungle.
In Future Dreaming, prolific Australian VR and AR artist Sutu worked with four rural Australian Aboriginal youths to create this appealing documentary about the futures they imagine for themselves. They employed motion capture technology to animate their avatars. Sutu’s light, appealing style communicates the universal aspirations of young people to find love, fulfillment, and community which is not limited by race, education or geography. This is the only piece in contention for the ATT Storyscapes prize that made our most awesome list.
The other four experiences in the Storyscapes competition are Another Dream by Tamara Shogaolu, which tells the story of an Egyptian lesbian couple that has to flee to the Netherlands to live openly without fear; The Collider, an immersive virtual and theatrical experience exploring power and dependency; an allegory for the middle eastern war refugees forced to flee their country which unfolds as a mystery in VR; and finally, Lucy Hammond’s which puts a team into an theatrical escape room experience. This is going to be a close one, I think.
Where There’s Smoke is a location-based escape room experience from Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab’s Lance Weiler. Working with his father, who had a terminal cancer diagnosis, Weiler created a haunting, immersive, location-based memory piece out of his father’s reminiscences, his career as a volunteer firefighter, and amateur fire scene photographer.
The offerings in the Arcade are rounded off by another native Indian contemplation, Unceeded Territories , and Common Ground , which mixes immersive room scale VR with to present a documentary about the London’s failed “Estates,” an urban renewal experiment from the 60s which sought to replace slums with low-income housing, and The 2nd Civil War , a branching 360 narrative from Kevin Cornish which shows how easily a distrustful and divided nation filled with guns and disinformation could collapse into violence. Children Do Not Play War is a 360 video which contemplates the impact of war on the children of Uganda.
Outside the Immersive Arcade, 100%, the moving story of the “Bald Ballerina,” from Springbok Entertainment, HP and Intel was created to benefit Stand Up To Cancer. This VR experience is part of Tribeca X. 100% tells the inspirational story of Maggie Kudirka, a rising star at the Joffrey Ballet, who at 23 was diagnosed with incurable stage four metastatic breast cancer. She narrates her own story while we see a state-of-the-art volumetric capture of her performance.
Magic Leap was showing its Games of Thrones themed mini experience with awesome animatronics. Neat way to show off the capabilities of the headset to merge the digital world with ours. It’s made for ATT store demos, is super short, gives a wow!, and then next! Can’t wait for artists to use this new spatial computing platform make the kind art for this device that we saw in this year’s Immersive Arcade.
Twenty-two experiences are just a bridge too far for one correspondent to cover in four hours, so we missed what might have been the real awesome list: Jessica Brillhardt’s collaboration with YoYoMa and Bose Spatial Audio, Into the Light andmultimedia mostly AR experience, Stealing UR Feelings, which uses facial recognition. There was good buzz about both of these works.
Oculus VR for Good supported Children Do Not Play War, The Key, and Wolves in the Walls, while HP supported 100%, A Drop in the Ocean, 2nd Civil War, and Bonfire, which all used the new lightweight high-resolution HP Reverb VR HMDs and backpack PCs. Under the leadership of the peripatetic Joanna Popper, we’re seeing HP and the new Reverb everywhere. Also gotta give it up for Oculus for the financial support they give so many new, ambitious works. Who else is doing that? No-one. And, without Tribeca Immersive, few would see them.
Tribeca Immersive takes place in the Tribeca Festival Hub located at Spring Studios — 50 Varick Street. Admission to presentations of the Virtual Arcade featuring Storyscapes is $40. Screening tickets for Tribeca Cinema360 screenings are $15. Tickets can be purchased online attribecafilm.com/immersive or by telephone at (646) 502–5296 or toll-free at (866) 941-FEST (3378).