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Virtual reality @ SXSW

by Tiffany Lafleur March 21, 2017
Virtual reality @ SXSW

Displaying the best and brightest upcoming VR artists, companies and installations

The Positron Voyager chair rotates and tilts, allowing for the sensation of movement.

The buzz around virtual reality and immersive technologies has been building in recent years as more companies and individuals embrace this new frontier. There is a scramble to see who can make it to the forefront of the medium, by creating ever-more poignant VR stories, more immersive technology and more impressive experiences.

The Virtual Cinema at the SXSW festival displayed some of the most innovative game-changers in this budding industry. Included in the exhibition was NASA’s Mars 2030, in which the participant becomes an astronaut exploring the red planet’s rocky terrain.

Montreal-based company and industry leader Felix & Paul Studios was also in attendance, displaying several new works. These included Miyubi, their first immersive narrative experience, and Dream of “O,” a fantastical visual journey featuring Cirque du Soleil’s famous Vegas show, O.

Though the Virtual Cinema exhibition had many works from well-known creators, there were also many newcomers: artists who knew the stories they wanted to tell could only be told through the VR medium.

Fistful of Stars is one such work. You are a space voyager floating in the infinite sea of stars in the Orion Nebula, and get to witness both the birth and death of a star.

“When I first started thinking about this piece, I wanted to make people feel as if they were going on a journey through the cosmos, and I wanted to make them feel as if they were floating in space,” said Eliza McNitt, the director. “Virtual reality was the only way for me to be able to tell that story.”

The work, which had its world premiere at SXSW, incorporates movement that shatters conventional immersive boundaries. It does this by coupling a VR headset with a Positron Voyager Chair, which rotates, spins and tilts to give you a sense of complete weightlessness.

It makes you feel as if you are actually floating in space rather than simply witnessing space.

Whereas Fistful of Stars eloquently and masterfully used the technological aspect of the medium to tell its story, Notes to my Father grips the audience and emotionally invests them in the piece.

This heart-wrenching story tells the tale of a woman whose marriage to a stranger was arranged by her father. Except, when the marriage fell apart, she was sold to an Indian brothel, unbeknownst to her father. Notes to my Father is a story of grief, love and reconciliation between a father and daughter. It is an emotional journey through pain, heartbreak and, ultimately, forgiveness. Despite having a close relationship, neither father or daughter has ever spoken about what happened to her. Yet deep down, both know. Their silence speaks volumes to the pain they both feel.

Notes to My Father is a heart-wrenching story that perfectly uses the VR medium’s empathy-enabling capabilities.

Director Jayisha Patel said empathy is crucial in having an authentic, captivating experience. VR puts the viewer right into the setting, and so this complete immersiveness into the story creates an emotional bond between the viewer and the characters.

“I’d love for different survivor-led organizations to be able to see this and connect, so we’re planning on doing that,” said Patel, who specializes in narratives about women, women of colour and gender violence. “I’d like to reach out to survivor-led organizations in the U.K., U.S. and Canada and get them to create a dialogue.”

VR is a strong medium for its empathy-inducing abilities because, as a viewer, you are part of the story instead of just a passive onlooker. When watching a film, if a character looks at the camera, it makes it seem as if they are looking in your general direction. But with VR, when a character looks at the camera, they are looking right into your eyes, because the camera is in fact a character in the story.

Both Fistful of Stars and Notes to my Father use the VR medium to its utmost potential. Though both pieces couldn’t be more different, they both fully and masterfully conduct their storytelling in an immersive and interesting manner that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer in different, but no less meaningful ways.

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