Virtual reality technology, which made such a splash at South by Southwest two years ago, mostly for gaming experience, took a sizable leap forward this week, at least judging by its presence at the SXSW Virtual Cinema.
What last year felt like a hodgepodge of demos on two sides of a narrow room in the Austin Hilton Downtown was upgraded to a much larger space in the JW Marriott. Starting Wednesday, it afforded VR experiences that had plenty of room to breath, including several room-sized installations such as the five-person shared VR experience “Beethoven’s Fifth” and “The Atrium,” which was made up of two giant domes at the Virtual Cinema entrance.
It made for a richer experience with a lot of variety, and at least on Wednesday, crowds turned out all day. One problem with VR experiences such as some of the ones at the Virtual Cinema is that they require a lot of overhead. You need the VR equipment (often at least a powerful laptop and a headset unless it’s a phone-based experience), staff to help people get the equipment on and off and start them up, and the patience of people to wait for the headsets to free up.
To address that, the more popular experiences had a wait list -- you could wander around and come back when it was your turn, much as you would waiting for a restaurant table. But in some cases, the wait list went on and on. I signed up for Meow Wolf’s “The Atrium” at about 10:30 a.m. as part of a media-only preview and was told I’d get a text in about 10 or 15 minutes. By late afternoon, there was still no text alert and the wait time was still listed at close to an hour. So that was a VR world I was unable to explore.
Also problematic was that no matter how much VR filmmakers prepare, things can still go wrong. “Beethoven’s Fifth,” for instance, puts you in a large room with four other people in vibration-enabled chairs to experience a lush performance of an orchestra performing, interspersed with space footage from NASA’s Voyager. Apart from the issue that the two elements didn’t really blend well together, my Google Daydream headset had a phone that was overheating. In the middle of the movement, a pop-up showed up telling me to cool down the phone. I kept it on, and then the video began to stutter, making it unwatchable. Someone had a spare headset to give me, but with VR that relies on smartphones, overheating is an ongoing problem.
The same thing happened when I tried out Australian filmmaker Martin Taylor’s “Awake: Episode One,” an otherwise fantastic example of how room-based VR can put you into an environment to explore. The interactive film, apparently about a doomed love affair, was spooky, dreamy and had great acting. The interactivity was limited, but what was there, such as picking up a phone and listening through it virtually, worked great. But then the video crashed completely, pulling me out of it after about five minutes. The person helping me asked if I wanted to start all over, but there was no way to continue where I left off.
That I didn’t leave the Virtual Cinema completely frustrated speaks to the power of the titles that did work. Austin filmmaker Terrence Malick’s “Together,” made in partnership with Facebook and Movement Art Is, a five-minute 360-degree dance performance, is absolutely breathtaking, with two performers communicating a gamut of emotions while Malick-like visuals are displayed on banners. Eventually, it gets cosmic. At first I thought the 360-degree feature was unnecessary; it would look beautiful in 2-D. But by the short film’s end, I was sold on Malick’s vision; it was a must-see that’s not yet available anywhere but at South by Southwest.
I was also wowed by “The Journey,” another 360-degree film, but one featuring children from Ethiopia, South Sudan and Chad at various stages of their lives. Compelling without being pitying, British filmmaker Charlotte Windle Mikkelborg’s film is hopeful and visually sharp. To enhance the experience, she brought a heated hut to South by Southwest and stood next to it, answering questions about the film. She said she’s working on a much larger interactive experience that will incorporate tastes, smells and other sensations to put viewers even closer to the story. I told her that even outside of VR, I would have found the nine-minute documentary completely transporting. But the VR layer does create an even more intimate sense of empathy. You might be fighting back tears behind your headset watching it.
“The Journey,” “Together” and the parts I got to see of other VR experiences were enough to give me hope that SXSW’s virtual-reality programming is improving and that the storytelling is getting there. You just might have to have a little patience with a few technical problems and get on a wait list or two.